Friday, December 30, 2011

White Cat

by Holly Black
New York : Margaret K. McElderry Books, c2010.

One morning, Cassel Sharpe wakes up on the roof of his dorm. His classmates and teachers think he wants to kill himself, but Cassel knows that it's just the sleepwalking that plagued him as a kid coming back. But how can he convince the school of that when his family is a group of powerful curse-workers?

The story is set in a sort of alternate universe, where much of our history has happened, but there have also been "workers" who can work magic by touching you - doing such things as altering emotions or memory. In the U.S., this is outlawed and many workers, including Cassel's family, have turned to crime instead. This creates a really interesting scenario that the author plays with in creating the "alternate" parts of history and the way in which society would work as a result, for example, with the crime families and a society that wears gloves. Cassel narrates in present tense, and is a truly conflicted character. He is the non-worker in a family of workers, not out of choice but because he doesn't have the ability, and feels left out as a result. I could empathize with his struggle to do the right thing while still loving his family, but in some ways his way of thinking was very foreign to me. The book reads really fast - I read it in an evening - and I recommend it to fans of teen fantasy looking for an interesting twist.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


by Carl Hiaasen
narrated by Chad Lowe
[New York] : Listening Library, c2002.

Roy, the new kid at Coconut Grove, Florida, has unfortunately attracted the notice of the local bully, Dana Matherson. When Dana is strangling him on the school bus, Roy has a good look out the window and sees a boy, running barefoot. Intrigued, he makes it his goal to find out about the running boy. Meanwhile, Curly, the foreman at a Mother Paula's pancake construction site, has been having difficulty with starting construction due to some creative vandalism.

To really tell you the meat of the story, I'm afraid I'd have to give away about the first half of it, so I'm going to leave my summary at that. I will add merely that one of the themes is the environment, and Roy's struggle of whether he should get involved in protesting - and how. His parents tell him that, when his heart and his head are telling him two different things, he needs to do his best to reconcile it and decide what actions to take. Not overtly preachy, though how much you enjoy the book will definitely be affected by your own take on environmental matters.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Parnassus on Wheels

by Christopher Morley
Garden City, New York : Doubleday, Page & Co., 1917.

Miss Helen McGill lives with her brother, Andrew, on a farm. She is eminently practical and hardworking while he, an author, is prone to let farm work go in lieu of rambles in the countryside - food for his writing. So when a traveling salesman with a "Parnassus" - a wagon full to bursting with books - comes selling his wagon and pony, Miss McGill decides she'll buy it herself rather than let Andrew take off again.

This is such a cute, humorous story. Miss McGill reminds me quite a lot of Marilla Cuthbert, if the latter had a literary brother instead of one who wanted to take in an orphan. Though written in 1917 (and set in 1907), the characters' thoughts on reading and good books will still ring true for today's readers. The course of the plot never really surprised me, but it was such a warm story that I couldn't help enjoying it. The perfect comfort read for curling up on a cool evening with a cup of cocoa.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Exiled Queen

by Cinda Williams Chima
New York : DisneyHyperion, 2010.

**Spoilers for the first in the series, The Demon King.

Han and Raisa's story continues where The Demon King left off. Han and Dancer are on their way to the wizard academy; Raisa travels to Oden's Ford as well to the soldier's school with Amon Byrne and his Gray Wolves. Between the Bayars and civil war in Arden, their journeys are fraught with peril before they even arrive.

Usually I like to give myself a small break between the books in a series so that I don't get too sick of a story, but the end of The Demon King left me really wanting the next installment. Unfortunately, that lack of a break left me chafing whenever there was explanation or reminder of what had gone on before. I was most interested in learning what happens at the schools, and felt that much of the time spent traveling drags a bit, where the first book was more evenly paced. I like Han, Raisa, and Amon a lot, and look forward to seeing how their story unfolds in The Gray Wolf Throne. But now that I know there are going to be four books in the series, I'm planning on spacing it out so I have just enough time to give the series a break of a couple of months, while still being able to remember the story line.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Bit of Christmas Reading

Do you read any books specifically for the holiday season?

If so, do you have favorites you return to, or do you have favorite rereads you return to?

I thought I'd share a bit about my holiday reading. I celebrate Christmas, and enjoy reading a book or two in the month of December specifically about the Christmas season.

Every year - at least for the past five, and perhaps longer - I have read and reread Dickens' A Christmas Carol. It's become a sentimental favorite. There was one year that, besides reading it, I also watched just about every movie version I could get my hands on (including Muppet Christmas Carol and An American Christmas Carol).

But I also like to read something new. This year, I read The Father Christmas Letters by J.R.R. Tolkien. This is a really cute collection I enjoyed paging through. I could have read it in one sitting, but I spread it out a bit over two days. The stories of Father Christmas and the hapless Polar Bear are often funny, complete with reproductions of Tolkien's illustrations. While I probably wouldn't read it from beginning to end for myself, it would make a fun family read-aloud around Christmastime.

So now that I've answered the questions I've put to myself, here's a final one for you:

What have you or will you read for the holiday season?

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Hundred Penny Box

by Sharon Bell Mathis
illus. by Leo and Diane Dillon
New York : Puffin Books, 1986.

Michael's great-aunt Dew is one hundred years old, and has a box in which she keeps pennies - one for every year of her life. Michael's mother wants to get rid of it, but Michael realizes the importance of the memories that make Aunt Dew the special woman she is.

This is more of a short story than a picture book. It is 47 pages long, and heavier on text than illustration. The illustrations are sepia-toned and quite striking; I kept thinking this sort of story would have been perfect during my early elementary years, that transition between books with pictures on every page and chapter books with almost none at all. Though it is short, this is a well-told story with characters that you really sympathize with. Even Michael's mother, Ruth, though she wants to discard the box, has taken her husband's aunt in and wants what is best for her, even if she and Michael - and Aunt Dew herself - don't agree on what "best" is. A realistic portrayal of a close family and a woman growing older and less independent.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Bloodhound (Beka Cooper #2)

by Tamora Pierce
New York : Random House, c2009.

Sequel to Terrier.

Rebakah (Beka) Cooper is back in her second adventure. In her journal, she records the events of her day as a Dog on the police force in Tortall. Lately, coles - silver coins with brass hidden in the middle - have been showing up in the Lower City. Beka and her partners' hunt for the colemongers take them outside of their normal stomping grounds to Port Caynn, where they meet a new group of people and a new Rogue, Pearl Skinner, who doesn't have the brains or the finesse of Rosto.

If you enjoyed Terrier, the first book in the Beka Cooper series, be sure to continue with Bloodhound, which uses the same diary format and fast-paced plotting to continue Beka's story now that she is a full-fledged Dog. As with other Tamora Pierce books, I didn't agree with some of the main character's choices in her personal life, and as with Terrier, I found the journal entries sometimes confused things (in this case, by having the dates out of sequence so that the story itself is told chronologically). I think the fact that I took two weeks to read a book I would normally read in about three days had something to do with the fact that I didn't quite like Bloodhound as much as the first in the series.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Haiti After the Earthquake

by Dr. Paul Farmer
narrated by Eric Conger and others
[United States] : Highbridge Company, 2011.

*NOTE: This review refers to the book I received through LibraryThing Early Reviewers. As per the rules, I receive a free book in return for a review, and whether it's positive or negative has no affect on my receiving books in the future.*

I've been eying this book on the library new bookshelf for awhile. Paul Farmer, as well as his work for Partners in Health, was the subject of Tracy Kidder's book Mountains Beyond Mountains, and the earthquake had a personal connection in its effect on my aunt's process of adopting a Haitian orphan. But the book was too long to read in two weeks, so when it was offered through the Early Reviewers program I was really excited to receive this audio copy.

In this book, Paul Farmer - now UN Deputy Special Envoy to Haiti under former president Bill Clinton - details his experiences in the first year after the earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince on January 12, 2010. The majority of the book, 8 CDs in the audio version, is his point of view, but includes copious quotes from colleagues and friends affected as well. Dr. Farmer's involvement was more on a political level than anything else, so while he does include some stories of individuals affected by the quake, he focuses much of his narrative on "building back better," and the political policies that he believes will affect change in Haiti. I did not find this as personally interesting, nor did I agree entirely with his underlying assumption that the public sector is the best way to provide certain services.

Dr. Farmer's text is read not by Meryl Streep as the packaging would suggest, but Eric Conger, who does a good job of keeping the narration flowing and making it clear when he is quoting someone else. Since this was a full-cast audio, I half expected quotes from other people to be delivered by other voices, but this is not the case. Instead, each essay at the end - written by various people including Edwidge Danticat, Nancy Dorsinville, Timothy T. Schwartz, and Dr. Farmer's wife Didi - are read by the cast. I particularly liked the narration by the Haitian authors themselves: Edwidge Danticat reading her essay made me want to read her fiction. Because these three narrators' renditions were slower, I found it hard to follow entirely on audio and supplemented by reading the book at the same time. But I loved the individuality and nuance it brought to their essays, and loved being able to hear the Haitian Creole phrases and sentences the way they should sound (for the record, it sounds similar to French, but I wouldn't have guessed that from the spelling). While in some ways this book wasn't what I expected, I am glad I read it, and I will pass it on to my aunt who, I think, will appreciate it even more than I did.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Son of Neptune

by Rick Riordan
New York : Disney*Hyperion Books, 2011.

**Spoiler alert for the first book in the series, The Lost Hero.**

As we found out in The Lost Hero, Percy Jackson has been missing for eight months, in an exchange for the Roman demigod, Jason Grace. Now, we follow Percy's adventures in the Roman camp as he tries to defeat Gaea's forces.

It's been a long time since I read The Lost Hero and the original Percy Jackson series, so I was sometimes a little slow to recognize references to past books and returning characters. But the narration and dialog is as hilarious and sarcastic as ever, and I really enjoyed following Percy and his new Roman friends, Hazel and Frank. There are a lot of references to both Greek and Roman mythology, and their differences, but the fun in the books is primarily the over-the-top adventure and humor.

I actually read this towards the end of the blackout after the October snowstorm - my house had power, but one of my libraries was still out, so I had two days off to read this quickly. Also due to the storm, my sister around to help me remember the references and looked up every so often to ask, "What are you laughing at now?" It was fun to share the read with her, since she had just finished the book recently, too.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Spying Girls Don't Do Normal

I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You
by Ally Carter
New York : Hyperion Paperbacks, 2007 (orig. pub. 2006).

**some spoilers follow**

Cammie goes to the Gallagher Academy, which everyone thinks is a snobby prep school. In reality, it's a spy school. Besides normal classes, Cammie and her friends Bex and Liz learn several different languages, disguise, and how to avoid a tail. Then, she goes out on a school project and meets a cute boy - and her friends decide to make him their extracurricular activity. Is he trying to infiltrate their school, or just a normal guy? Commence background checks, stakeouts, and laughs!

This is the first book of the Gallagher Girls series, which I've been meaning to read for awhile. The plot moves right along, while Cammie throws in some one liners about her school and her life (I am still waiting to learn how to kill a man with a piece of uncooked spaghetti). Other than Cammie, who is narrating, the characters fell a little flat. Liz is a stereotypical nerd. Macey had some potential as the bad girl who's out of the loop in spy school, but there was more of a sudden switch in her behavior rather than any development. Josh seems a little contradictory to me, and I got the idea that Cammie liked the idea of being a normal girl than him specifically. Still, the idea of her having to hide her identity and school from him makes for a unique situation that I think teens can still identify with, as many feel that they are hiding their true selves from others. A story with a lot of potential; I will certainly read the next book in the series.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

On Authors I Said I'd Never Read

by Stephen King
New York: Scribner, 2011.

Once upon a time, I claimed that I would never read a book by Stephen King (except, maybe, his nonfiction). I have a strong aversion to having the pants scared off of me, and I have a weak enough stomach that I make my brother warn me when to avert my eyes for PG-13 movies. But one day I was minding my own business at work, reading reviews, and I happened to come along one for 11/22/63.

The premise intrigued me: Jake, a divorced guy with no kids, a high school teacher in 2011, gets a call from a buddy, who shows him a "rabbit hole" into September, 1958. His friend, who is dying and can't go back in time any longer, convinces Jake that he could change the past by preventing JFK's assassination.

Well, I thought. Time travel and history, that I can do. Then the book came in (much sooner than I expected) from the library, all 860+ pages of it. Which, of course, meant that I had to put everything aside and read it sooner rather than later, since - this being a Stephen King novel, after all - there are over 100 holds on the book in my library system. So, I jumped right in, and before I knew it I was absolutely lost in Jake's story and his trip into the past. I was more interested in some parts than others, which is only to be expected in a book this long.. The descriptions were evocative: I could really picture the dingy apartments where Jake stays, and the streets of Dallas and Derry. I can't say I always agreed with Jake's choices or point of view, but I really cared about him and other characters he meets. I didn't know much about Lee Harvey Oswald and John Kennedy's assassination, but I really want to learn more now.

My lesson is learned. I will "never say never again." I was really impressed with this story, my first foray into Stephen King's work, and (dare I say it?) not my last.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

F in Exams - A in Humor!

F in Exams: The Very Best Totally Wrong Test Answers
by Richard Benson
San Francisco : Chronicle Books, 2011.

Looking for something quick and light before the end-of-semester or other seasonal craziness? This book is sure to put a smile on your face, collecting the "best totally wrong test answers," as the subtitle advertises.

The layout is well thought out. The chapters are organized by subject, such as Chemistry, Math, and English. Each page has two questions and answers; the answers are in different handwriting fonts and different colors. Sometimes the humor was more evident if you actually knew the correct answer, but it's not always necessary. The answers are goofy, logical, or smart-alecky, but I was laughing out loud for the 30 minutes or so it took me to page through this book.