Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Crimson Crown

by Cinda Williams Chima
New York : Hyperion, 2012.

See my reviews for the previous books in the series, The Demon King, The Exiled Queen and The Grey Wolf Throne. **Spoilers for these books follow - you've been warned!** In this final book in the Seven Realms series, Raisa is now queen and fighting to keep her fractious country united. Han, former streetlord turned wizard, has his sights set high: he wants nothing less than to marry Raisa, and he may take drastic action to make that happen.

I have very much enjoyed the time I spent with Raisa and Han in this series, and discovering the history of the Seven Realms and Raisa's queendom. It's very hard to separate this book out and talk about it separate from the series, but I can say that I like seeing the ways in which Chima develops some of her secondary characters so that you are not always sure if they were more good than bad, or if they would do the right thing in the end. It's a typical teen fantasy in some ways (good versus evil, the young taking on the elders and teaching them a better way, a kick butt heroine and a romance), but because I absolutely loved Raisa and, I admit, especially Han, I would consider revisiting the series someday, and I found this a fitting end to the story.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

by Robin Sloan
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.
Out of a job during the recession, Clay Jannon happens upon a 24-hour book store that needs a clerk on the night shift. Clay really knows coding and the internet a lot better than books, but he can climb a ladder and help the few people who frequent the store. The regular customers turn out to be eccentrics who borrow obscure tomes from what Clay terms the "Waybacklist," and he soon becomes convinced that the bookstore is merely a front for something else...

I tried to think of what I might compare this to, and the best I can come up with is it's like Ready Player One for book lovers. There's a mystery surrounding books, a delightful bookstore that is open all day (who wouldn't love that?), and a wisecracking clerk all wrapped up in an homage to the delights of reading. As much as I can try to describe it, however, there's really nothing that I can say to describe the pleasure I felt every time I opened up the pages. I had a smile on my face to the very last sentence.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Great Gatsby

by F. Scott Fitzgerald
New York: Scribner, 1996 (originally published 1925)

Nick Carraway goes East, living on the portion of Long Island known as "West Egg," where he meets Jay Gatsby, his neighbor, a rich man who gives elaborate parties for a hundred guests, yet no one seems to really know him.

This read to me as a sort of "lives of the rich and famous" of the 1920s. Nick's crowd - his cousin Daisy, her husband Tom, their friend Jordan, and Gatsby - are all rich and cynical and somehow apart from it all. Nick especially, though he is our narrator, is an observer in this drama, leaving the reader removed, in a way, from the characters and events as they play out.

Regular readers of this blog may know that I very seldom write about book I didn't enjoy. Classics are my one exception. Truthfully, I didn't dislike Gatsby so much as I felt ambivalent about it. I didn't like most of the characters, and I didn't particularly like what they did most of the time. Perhaps I wasn't supposed to, because as I look back on it, they're all sort of self-absorbed and superficial, but for me it's really hard to enjoy a book when I dislike whom I'm reading about. The narrative does have themes that would be interesting to explore as a class or in a paper. I found myself wishing that I had read it for English class, as I really would have benefited from a little bit of guidance and the sort of analysis that comes with the need to write a paper on it. As it was, I finished the book feeling like I'd missed something. I'm glad to have read it, but it's not going to stand out as a favorite.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Crown of Embers

by Rae Carson
New York : Greenwillow Books, 2012.

***Second in a series - spoiler warning for The Girl of Fire and Thorns.***

As the new queen, Elisa knows she has to be a strong ruler in the midst of turmoil at court. She's shown her mettle in battle, but still doesn't know why she is the Godstone bearer of this century, and what great service that means she must perform.

I really enjoy this series because Elisa is such a fresh and interesting character. She isn't your average kick-butt heroine. She does what she has to do, but she's sometimes unsure of herself and struggles with her conscience over her actions as ruler and as a person. Though it had been awhile since I read the first book, I didn't feel at all lost picking this one up as important plot points were reintroduced subtly and as-needed throughout the story. And then there's the pacing, which is pitch-perfect, pageturning without getting frantic. I started reading it before bed a couple of nights ago, and before I knew it, I had read for a couple of hours and was over 100 pages into it. It's just that hard to find a stopping point, because I want to know what happens next to the characters I've come to love.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

More Baths Less Talking

by Nick Hornby
San Francisco, CA : Believer Books, [2012].

In this collection of "Stuff I'm Reading" columns that Nick Hornby writes for the Believer magazine, he is back after a hiatus of, well, not writing such columns, that he finished in Shakespeare Wrote for Money. The essays in More Baths Less Talking cover about a year and a half (May 2010 to November/December 2011) of reflections on what he's read. Each column starts out with two lists - books bought and book read - followed by an essay filled with humor, his life, and most of all books.

I love these columns. There are now four books in the series that can be read in any order, but it is fun to pick up a new book and remember past columns to which he occasionally refers. While Hornby's taste is generally quite different from mine, I nevertheless always add a book or two to the ever-growing to be read list while dipping into these collections. Mostly, though, I just enjoy getting into the head of another reader, someone who loves books as much as I do and who can write about it in a cogent, interesting, and funny way. Reading these books always leaves me wishing I could write my own column like that, but I know I could never do it as well. I shall have to settle for reading (and rereading) Nick Hornby's columns, and wishing that the columns and his books were longer.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Game Day

Game day : sports writings, 1970-1990
by Thomas Boswell
New York : Doubleday, 1990.

Thomas Boswell is a veteran writer for the Washington Post whom I never would have heard of if it hadn't been for a friend of mine. Despite the fact that he will only read an actual book if it's not available on the Kindle, he happens to be one of the only people I know in person who reads anywhere close to what I read in a year (and he claims it's only one fifth of what I read). So, every now and then I'll ask him what he's reading, and a month and a half ago, this was it. At least, I'm about 80% sure I got the author right. But regardless of whether or not I actually picked up the same book or author, the fact remains that I would not have chosen to read this book if it had not been for my friend's recommendation.

Boswell covers football, basketball, boxing, golf, the Olympics, tennis, and baseball. I watch the first and the last three, so of course found those the most interesting, while the middle dragged a little for me. But my friend described this as a book about various sports that had the most words he'd ever have to look up in the dictionary. I admit that was the selling point for me; I am a sucker for learning new words. Though I spent the first 100 or so pages wondering what he was talking about, in the remaining pages I wrote down a dozen or so to look up, from words I'd never read before, such as ectomorph (an individual with a slender, lean body, a slight build), to words I didn't know specific to a sport, such as a dogleg in golf (crooked or bent like a dog's hind leg as in "a sharp dogleg bend in the fairway"). What my friend didn't tell me was the Boswell has a bit of a philosophical bent, too, from ruminating on the way in which talking about sports has become the American way of talking about deep thoughts of morals and politics when it just appears to be about "only a game," to his sounding off on our tendency to demonize athletes when they make a mistake. He references classical mythology, John Updike, Moby-Dick, and Emily Dickinson (actually, he didn't just reference her, he had two of her poems in one article).

I had a mixed reaction overall. When I was reading about the sports I didn't really care about, I found myself characterizing the book as something that my friend was interested in professionally (he's a local sportswriter himself), and not something that I could see appealing to the general public. I almost put the book down multiple times - I like sports, but 300+ pages of sports columns is quite a commitment. But about two thirds of the way into the book, I started 1. finding more new words and 2. settled into a rhythm where I found myself enjoying the smart references and vivid descriptions. And, the truth is, once I got to the Olympics, I was back in sports I was interested in. Would I recommend it? Not for the casual fan. But if you follow a variety of sports, know your 1970s to 90s sports history, or are interested in sports journalism in general, then yes, this was an engaging, smart collection that you may find thought-provoking.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Binocular Vision

by Edith Pearlman
Wilmington : Lookout Books/University of North Carolina Wilmington, c2011.

In this collection of thirty-four stories, Edith Pearlman brings into sharp focus the everyday and extraordinary lives of people. Many of them are set just outside of Boston, and many of them have Jewish characters. While many modern short story writers seem to take a depressing tone, Pearlman's are never that simple. Some are sad; many are hopeful. Most were, at the very least, thought-provoking.

But it would be hard to take such a variegated collection and begin to make generalizations without losing the beauty of each individual one. Pearlman has a real gift for language that made reading each of these short stories a pleasure. I found myself wanting to both rush and slow down at the same time. I would hold out the treat of reading a story as a gift to myself: if you finish getting ready for work, you can read one more.

One of my favorite stories was "Jan Term," told in the form of a composition a Josie, a student composed telling about what she did over the last school break, but illuminating so much more about her life. "Elder Jinks" tells the story of two older people who married, but it left me thinking about both the compromises and discoveries you make through marriage. Then there was a series of stories set during and after World War 2 that had some recurring characters, but in different situations. These were just a few of the stories I could happily revisit, and I feel sure that whether a story left me happy, sad, or unsettled, I could reread it and know I gained a richer understanding.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Caleb's Crossing

by Geraldine Brooks
New York : Viking, 2011.

Bethia Mayfield is the daughter of the preacher on Martha's Vineyard, a man who sees it as his life's work to preach the gospel to the Indians. On one of Bethia's rambles in the wilderness of this land, she encounters a young Wampanoag, whom she renames Caleb, a young man whose friendship she treasures, but would never be sanctioned in the 1660s.

I have read other novels by Geraldine Brooks, but never have I been so enthralled with them as I was with Caleb's Crossing. Bethia, our narrator, is a young woman with a keen mind and thirst for knowledge but also devout and not unbelievably modern in her thinking. Caleb was based on a real person, one of the first Wampanoag men to matriculate at Harvard. As in the best historical fiction, time and place - in both Martha's Vineyard and Cambridge - are evocative and realistic with historical details naturally adding to the narrative, showing Brooks' research with a light touch. I now want to follow up with some of the sources mentioned in the afterword to learn more about the time period. In addition to this, Brooks delicately touches on the themes of religion and prejudice without sounding preachy or anachronistic. Truly superb historical fiction.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Among Others

by Jo Walton
New York : Tor, 2011.

Morwenna Phelps Markova ran away from her crazy mother after her sister's death and her own injury, and is now living with the father she never met. Her aunts send her to boarding school, and her diary is filled with what she does at school, what she ran from in the past, and how she deals with her world by reading tons of fantasy and SF in 1979 and 1980.

Though most of the book reads like a standard coming-of-age novel, there are two major differences. One, there are fairies. Two, Morwenna reads a lot of fantasy and SF - I counted around 100 books mentioned - and if you're at all interested in the genre, you will enjoy her discussion of books. The fairies are a bit harder to describe, but I thought it was done with a light touch making this a sort-of fantasy because of the presence of magic. A diary format can be hard to pull off, but this read really naturally as Morwenna's thoughts and recounting of the day to day, and lent itself to only marginally explaining what had happened in the past. In a way, her diary more about the aftermath than the actual happening. I enjoyed the story on a first read, but I think I would have to reread it to better articulate exactly what I thought about it.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Beautiful Mystery

by Louise Penny
New York : St. Martin's Minotaur, 2012.

Despite the fact that this is the eight book in a series, there are no spoilers in the following review. Enjoy! Chief Inspector Gamache and his second in command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, are on another case. When a monk dies, they go to Saint Gilbert Entre les Loups, a monastery where few have ever been allowed access. This order of Gilbertines is known for their amazing Gregorian chants, plain songs which can have a profound affect on those who sing or listen - the "beautiful mystery.".

As much as I enjoy Three Pines and the characters from the village, I find that some of my favorite Inspector Gamache stories are set away from there. Because of the unique setting, we really focus on two familiar characters exclusively - Gamache and Beauvoir. I had so many highs and lows I felt like these were real people, real friends of mine. Meanwhile the story, the mystery unfolds slowly until I found myself drawn in and so completely immersed that I want to listen to some plainchants myself just to hear what was described throughout the book.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Pursuit of Alice Thrift

by Elinor Lipman
New York : Random House, 2003.

Dr. Alice Thrift doesn't excel at interpersonal communication. Actually, that's putting it lightly. She's an intern who wants to become a surgeon, works long hours, and takes everything seriously. When Ray Russo, a former near-patient for a nose job, starts calling her and asking her out, she's rather flattered and can't quite see how this could go wrong, despite the advice of everyone around her.

I was in the mood for something light and knew an Elinor Lipman book would fit the bill. Despite, or perhaps because of, her serious nature, Alice was a really fun heroine. I'm not so great at reading people either, but even I was a step ahead of Alice and sometimes laughing at her naivete. She tells you on the very first page that her relationship with Ray doesn't work out, so reading this felt kind of like watching a car wreck - you just can't look away.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Legend

by Marie Lu
New York : G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2011.

Day has been on the run ever since he failed his Trial. He's a wanted criminal according to the Republic, but he cares for an orphan, Tess, and still checks in on his family in a poor section of Los Angeles. June is a prodigy; she scored a perfect 1500 on the Trial and is the youngest in her class by a few years. She hopes to eventually enter the military like her brother, Metias. When tragedy strikes their lives are unexpectedly brought together.

This teen dystopia has a little bit of everything: adventure, romance, two sympathetic narrators that each get to tell their side of the story. As a reader, you know more than they do, and I've read enough of the genre to pick up on the clues: I was only surprised by one or two revelations. There were a few moments that I had to really suspend disbelief, as they seemed too coincidental or not fully explained. While not a perfect book, it's fast-paced and kept my interest throughout. I can see why it's a popular choice for teen readers looking for something after The Hunger Games, and I'll continue reading when the sequel, Prodigy, comes out in January.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Chosen

by Chaim Potok
New York : A.A. Knopf, 1992 (25th Anniversary Edition).

Fifteen-year-old Reuven Malter plays softball for his yeshiva, and gets hurt when Danny Saunders hits a ball right to his eye. He may lose sight in the eye, and he's naturally extremely angry at first. But the accident turns out to be the beginning of an incredible friendship between two Jewish boys from very different backgrounds and belief systems.

I can't remember exactly why I had this book on my ever-growing list of books to read. I certainly didn't know a thing about the plot; I knew about the author a little only by reputation. I loved Potok's writing style, the way you see everything through Reuven's eyes but still get a window into the other characters through how they act and speak - there's no paragraph explaining who each of them is or where they came from, just a slow unveiling of Danny, Reb Saunders, Reuven's father, and other secondary characters. Set during World War 2 and just after, despite some of the heartbreaking occurrences, at its heart this is a warm story that I would enjoy revisiting often.

Sorry for the lack of a cover image - it was pretty plain, and I didn't think you'd care to see a random blue rectangle.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Broken Kingdoms

by N.K. Jemisin
New York : Orbit, 2010.

The second in the Inheritance trilogy. I managed not to have spoilers for it, but you should also check out my review for The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.

Oree, a blind young woman who can see only magic. She has left her family behind to live in Shadow, the city below the World Tree in Sky, and sell her wares to tourists. When she finds a godling in the alley, dead, the Order Keepers are suddenly interested in Oree - and there interest can be dangerous.

Though this is the second in a series, you can read it without having read the first (though it will have spoilers for the first story, should you decide to go back). In fact, I'd gone over a year and a half since reading the first book, and had no trouble following this one. It takes place about ten years later, and the reader slowly (re)discovers what happened in the interim as Oree either shares or learns more about what's really going on. It's a compelling story with really excellent worldbuilding. The Gods are at the same time very human and yet different, and make for interesting interactions whenever they show up. I will definitely not be waiting another year and a half before reading the next book in the series.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Open: An Autobiography

by Andre Agassi
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.

Tennis star Andre Agassi bares all in his account of his life, from young phenom whose father pushed him to "Hit harder" and asked (or coerced) players to hit with his son, to troubled teen at the Bollettieri Academy to revered veteran of the game.

My father read this soon after it came out, and recommended it to me. Whenever it came up, he'd talk to me about Agassi's father, or what Agassi said about other players - he was not a fan of Connors, for example. The one phrase that kept coming to mind while reading his memoir was "brutal honesty." I mean, Agassi goes so far as to tell you in the acknowledgements who his ghostwriter/co-writer is (incidentally, this added a book to my TBR list, The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer), as well as setting the record straight in ways that do not always portray him in the best light. This is a candid account for sure, as Agassi literally opens up about his struggles and how he comes to terms with who he is. His present-tense narrative with no quotation marks for speech could have been distracting, but instead it made the past events all the more immediate. It's hard to say I enjoyed it, but I found it compelling and would definitely recommend it to sports fans and biography fans alike.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Out of the Blue

by Victor Cruz, with Peter Schrager
New York : Celebra, c2012.

If you follow football at all, you probably heard about Victor Cruz. He was an undrafted rookie free agent who signed with the New York Giants' football team, only to sit out most of the 2010 season with a hamstring injury. But in 2011, he made headlines, apparently coming out of nowhere to become Eli Manning's go-to receiver on third down. Cruz's autobiography details exactly where he came from, starting in a rough neighborhood in Paterson, New Jersey to go to the University of Massachusetts, through all the hardship and determination to make it in the NFL.

As a huge Giants fan from a family of Giants fans and a UMass alum, I may be biased, but I think even non-football fans would enjoy this read. He has a sense of where he's come from and knows he's a role model. Cruz shows how many times he could have ended in failure by bad decisions or just pure bad luck, and how hard his mother and his coaches worked to make him the young man he is today. The style of writing is chatty and personable (in my head, I could often hear Cruz's voice from my dad's highlight DVDs). An entertaining and inspiring read I'll be recommending to my family.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Gray Wolf Throne

by Cinda Williams Chima
New York : Hyperion, 2011.

***As the third book in the Seven Realms series, this review will necessarily have spoilers for The Demon King and The Exiled Queen.***

Having avoided the assassins' attempt on her life, Raisa is now alone. She's trying to travel back home while also allowing Amon Byrne to find her, and avoiding areas of war in the Seven Realms not to mention the other assassins sent by someone who clearly prefers having her sister, Mellony, on the throne. Meanwhile, Han Alister is trying to find Raisa - whom he knew as Rebecca - as well, but he's afraid her trail may have grown cold.

If you enjoyed the first two books in this series, then The Gray Wolf Throne will not disappoint. The author finds an excellent balance between action and character development, as Raisa and Han each have to find their way in the midst of political turmoil to, well, avoid death at the hands of their enemies. They are both compelling characters, and alternating between their perspectives with third-person narration allows readers to nearly get into their heads but get a slightly more holistic view of events because we know what they think about themselves and each other. I'm looking forward to reading The Crimson Crown when it comes out in October.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Prisoner of Heaven

by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
HarperCollins, 2012.

A mysterious man shows up at Sempere & Sons book store looking for Fermin, setting Daniel on a quest to find out about his friend's past.

This is the third in the connected stories in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books cycle. While it's not necessary to have read The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel's Game beforehand, I think I would not have been as emotionally connected to events and characters if I had not. Of the three, I think this book stands alone the least, though it still could, as the author intends, be the introduction to the cycle set in 1950s Barcelona. In fact (and I never thought I'd say this), it made me want to go back and reread The Angel's Game because I have the feeling I completely misunderstood it the first time around.

While it still doesn't hold a candle to The Shadow of the Wind which is one of my all-time favorites, I loved getting Fermin's back story and am truly looking forward to seeing where the next book takes these characters.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Iron Daughter

by Julie Kagawa
New York : Harlequin Teen, 2010.

Second book alert! Check out my review for the first book in the series, The Iron King.

Taking up soon after The Iron King leaves off, Meghan Chase is now in Tir Na Nog, the domain of Mab, Queen of the Unseelie. After all, that's the deal she made with Prince Ash: help rescue her brother, Ethan, and she would return with him - and you can't get out of bargains made with faeries. But Ash, one of Mab's sons, has been strangely distant, and Meghan isn't sure what to do, especially since the threat of the iron fey is still present.

It's hard to say exactly why this didn't work for me quite as well as the first one did, so I am going to chalk it up to my reading mood. This is truly more of the same as the first book - Meghan going off into an adventure trying to defeat the iron fey, while worrying over boys. I found myself quicker to criticize her, mainly when she was being a boy-obsessed (faery-obsessed?) teenage girl or when she never seems to be able to contribute to a fight before someone gets injured. Can't we give the girl a sword or a bow and arrows? Still, it was a fairly engaging story and while I may not hunt down the third book to read immediately (mostly so that I can take a break and not feel like I'm reading the same thing, which will lead to more enjoyment), I do want to see where the series ultimately ends.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Code Name Verity

by Elizabeth Wein
New York : Hyperion Books, 2012.

A young woman, captured by the Gestapo in Ormaie, writes her confession.

You mean you want to know more than that? I can't tell you. No, really. If the cover and that premise is enough to intrigue you, then do yourself a favor and read the book without reading my thoughts any further. This is a complex narrative that's best if you know very little, though I will try to explain what I think of it.

The non-spoiler review:
There is a lot of historical fiction about World War 2, and every now and then one stands out to me as exceptional. Code Name Verity is one of these. By focusing on women in wartime roles that were historically accurate but not often mentioned, the author truly captured my interest. She doesn't waste time explaining, but throws you right into the historical time period. The captured woman, nicknamed "Queenie" and her friend, Maddie, are truly compelling characters I enjoyed getting to know.

**SPOILER WARNING**
Alright, so you really want my thoughts on this? Be warned that I'm going to assume you've read the book if you're reading this paragraph. OK, here goes...

I loved this book. I loved getting to know Julie ("Queenie") and Maddie. I noticed details while I was reading Julie's story - that she claimed not to know an awful lot of people's real names, that information about the hotel that became a Nazi prison was underlined. The way in which Maddie's narrative completely subverted and explained Julie's was absolutely brilliant. I enjoyed the historical detail about women pilots and special operatives in the war, but Julie and Maddie are characters first, not just the means to provide me, the reader, with information. I was afraid that the story would be heartbreaking, and it was, but not so absolutely depressing that I couldn't read it again. This is one of those books that could go either way as appealing to adults and older teens, and I will be recommending it highly to both.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Renegade Magic

by Stephanie Burgis
New York : Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2012.

Second book alert! Check out my review of Kat, Incorrigible (also known as A Most Improper Magick). In the second book of her adventures, Kat Stephenson gets whisked to Bath after the mother of Frederick Carlyle dashes Angeline's hopes at marriage.

It's been awhile since I read the first book in the series, but it turns out not to matter much. Burgis deftly reminded me who characters were and what was going on, as well as introducing new fun. Kat may be rather precocious for her age, but the setting of early 1800s England makes some of her vocabulary more believable and this was just plain fun to read.

This book is known as A Tangle of Magick in Britain, where it was first published.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot
New York : Crown Publishers, c2010.

Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in the 1950s. Before she died, a doctor took cancerous cells and used them to create the first cell culture of human cells, which has gone on to advance medical science tremendously. But most people only knew these as HeLa, and not the woman behind the cells - her family didn't even know her cells were still alive.

Skloot tells the story of Henrietta and her family as well as delving into science and ethics in the medical profession. Her take is very personal, as she describes the way in which she gained the trust of the Lacks family and the conversations she had with them in addition to recreating the events of the 1950s and on.

I was really excited when the library book discussion that I facilitate picked this as one of our reads this year. I've been meaning to get to it since the book came out, and it finally gave me the impetus to do so. There's so much to this book - the personal stories, medical history, ethics - that it made an excellent choice for our book discussion, which went past our normal time to end and a few of us felt we could have gone on for another hour. This truly thought-provoking book has a little bit of everything, and I highly recommend it. You may not agree with everything, but you'll surely learning something.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

"You Can Tell Your Kid Will Grow Up to be a Librarian When..."

by Richard Lee
Jefferson, N.C. : McFarland & Company, c1992.

This collection of cartoons about the library profession was published in 1992. Similarly to Unshelved, the punchlines much more funny if you're actually in the profession; this one references some out-of-date technology (DIALOG, anyone?) that may or may not ring a bell to librarians that are my age.

Not all of the cartoons have to do with kids who will become librarians, though the first part of the collection is about that. There's also a section on parents who are librarians, patrons, library school, and more. The ones that really gave me a laugh were the ones I related to, like the one that says "You know your parents are librarians when they make you take pictures in front of boring buildings," with a picture of an annoyed kid, hand to his face, with his excited parents taking a picture outside of the library. Seeing as I did that, um, just this year, I laughed aloud at that one. The line drawings are simple but humorous. Overall, I prefer the Unshelved strips by Bill Barnes and Gene Ambaum, though I spent a pleasant few hours paging through this collection.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

by William Joyce,
illustrated by William Joyce and Joe Bluhm.
New York : Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2012.

I'm not sure whether the book or the movie came first. Reading the note about the author indicates that Joyce has been working on this story - a tribute to library promotion pioneer Bill Morris - since 1999, but also leads me to believe that the award-winning short film was available before the picture book.

Be that as it may, this is a delightful book about the power of books and storytelling. The text and illustrations work together perfectly, making you want to linger and soak up the details of every page. The multimedia illustrations often use muted colors, with a lot of creams and browns, evoking the look of an old book itself. This is a wonderfully crafted book I would love to put on my personal library bookshelves.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Rose: My Life in Service

by Rosina Harrison
New York : Viking Press, 1975.

Rosina (Rose) Harrison was born in 1899, in a time and class where she was expected to go into service. She determined early on to be a ladies' maid in order to travel, eventually working for Nancy, Lady Astor, for over 30 years.

This is my second memoir of life in service, which serves the dual purpose of teaching me a bit about how some of my English ancestors may have lived, and showing me more of the "downstairs" aspect of Downton Abbey. This title in particular was also mentioned in the "Further Reading" section of The World of Downton Abbey.

This was an interesting contrast to the first book I'd read about a life in service, Below Stairs, which I read about a month prior this title. Rose, unlike Margaret Powell, calls herself a "career woman," and unlike many of her time, decides that she wants her profession over marriage. Though Lady Astor is headstrong and difficult, Rose is a match for her and loves her, too. Rose takes great pride in her work, and seems happy and content; she doesn't overlook disparity, but doesn't seem to think that she's owed anything either. Her anecdotes are often eye-opening or funny. I learned a lot and enjoyed myself along the way.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Iron King

by Julie Kagawa
Harlequin Teen, 2010.

Meghan Chase finds her world has more than meets the eye when he brother is taken by faeries and a changeling with a mean streak takes his place. With only her friend Robbie to help her, she leaves her family behind to find her brother in the Nevernever.

As a reader of the fantasy genre, some of the early revelations in the story were not unexpected (***possible slight spoiler*** if you've read A Midsummer Night's Dream, Robbie's full name is meaningful the first time you see it, for example ***end spoiler***). But the simple truth is, I enjoyed this book. I enjoyed seeing Meghan grapple with new challenges, and I enjoyed the surprising and unsurprising plot twists, both the invention and the expected tropes. It was just...fun. And I hope the rest of the series has more of the same.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Song of Achilles

by Madeleine Miller
New York : Ecco, c2012.

Patroclus is the son of a king, but early on he knew he disappointed his father. He could never match up to Achilles, the son of a goddess and the one destined to be the greatest Greek fighter ever. When Patroclus accidentally kills a boy, he is exiled to Achilles' father's kingdom. As these boys become friends and companions, Patroclus narrates their story leading up to events that will be familiar to anyone who knows their Greek mythology.

Full confession: I still haven't read The Iliad and The Odyssey. I still could see where events were going, to some extent, but I couldn't tell you where the author diverges from or imagines additions to the original story. While I didn't always like what happened, I never could imagine things differently, one of the highest compliments I can give to a story. The writing was wonderfully evocative, and I think this is the sort of book that I might have rated in my mind lower directly after finishing it, but it will linger in my mind awhile longer and come out as a stronger read several months later when I've had time to fully digest it. At the very least, it made me eager to pick up some of the original Greek myths.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Black Heart

by Holly Black
New York : Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2012.

***Spoiler warning*** for earlier books in the series; see also my reviews for White Cat and Red Glove.

Now Cassel knows he is a transformation worker, and finds his loyalties divided between Lila & his family on the one hand and the federal agents who promise him a life on the right side of the law on the other. Meanwhile, a schoolmate asks for his help when someone blackmails her. As a con artist from a family of workers, Cassel knows she's not telling him the whole truth, and he's not sure who to trust.

I've enjoyed this series because Cassel is such an interesting character, someone who is genuinely conflicted between the life he's always known, loyalty to family, and a desire to do the right thing. The pace is fast, keeping me up late turning pages and, even though Cassel is the narrator, surprising me with what he holds back. The end was such that I wasn't sure whether to expect more or not, but either way it's a satisfying read.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Ready Player One

by Ernest Cline
New York : Crown Publishers, 2011.

The year is 2044. The most popular video game: OASIS. It's not just a video game, it's a full-immersion MMOG on a huge scale. Real life has become so wretched that a lot of people find relief playing the game and searching for the "egg." One of these people is Wade Watts, the narrator, whose life dream is winning the game - and, as a result, all of the creator's money.

This was a really entertaining story with a lot of 1980s and other trivia thrown into the mix. The creator of the game, James Halliday, was a pop culture nut and "wanted people to like the same thing he liked," so of course, the solutions to his puzzles often have an answer in 80s movies, songs, and more. As Wade and his friends get closer to his goal, the stakes rise and the plot gains momentum 'til the end. Sure to satisfy your inner geek.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Below Stairs

by Margaret Powell
New York : St. Martin's Press, 2012.

Originally written in the 1960s, Margaret Powell's first memoir as a kitchen maid and then cook in the 1920s and 30s is newly reprinted with a subtitle touting it as the inspiration for "Upstairs, Downstairs" and "Downton Abbey."

At first, I had a hard time believing this could be the inspiration, as it's very different from "Downton Abbey." An introduction with an explanation for the claim and a quick overview of the class system - though it's changed when Powell is writing, it's assumed you understand - would have been helpful to me as a young American, but there is none. Besides enjoying "Downton Abbey," I've done some research in family history and know I had relatives in service in the late 1800s to early 1900s, so I was interested in Powell's perspective. She pulls no punches in talking about her several positions with employers who were bad, worse or indifferent (I think there was one or two nice ones in there). She's not bitter, though, and she's often funny so once I got over the fact that it was different from what I expected, I did enjoy reading her thoughts and observations. Powell is clearly intelligent and curious and a reader. She has a sort of meandering, oral style and I could almost picture an older woman talking to someone, reminiscing about life when she was younger. The cover of the reissue - a woman dressed as a maid with a feather duster in hand and three young children in the background - has nothing to do with the contents (I surmise it may be from "Upstairs, Downstairs"?) and felt tacked on. If you're a fan of the "below stairs" aspect of "Downton Abbey," this eyewitness account will definitely be of interest.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Hexwood

by Diana Wynne Jones
New York : Greenwillow Books, c1994.

All is not well at Hexwood Farm, and Sector Controller Boranus is not happy. The Reigners won't be happy if they realize some underling awoke the Bannus, a machine that can create theta space and cause real people to go through somewhat manufactured events in order to see the best course of action. Meanwhile, on Earth, Ann Stavely has been sick and, the first day she feels better, she enters a wood where she meets Mordion, a strange man who says he has been in stasis for years and Hume, a boy she seems to have some responsibility for. But odd things seem to be happening with time and the sequence of events when she goes in the wood...

If that sounds confusing, well, let's just say this is the sort of complex story that doesn't sound at all right when I try to sum it up without spoilers. Ignore the awful cover art (yes, that really is the book I own). This story has a little bit of everything: complex storyline, sympathetic characters, and a dash of humor. I've been making my way through Diana Wynne Jones' oeuvre, and thought I'd found my favorites already (Howl's Moving Castle and Dark Lord of Derkholm, in case you're wondering), but Hexwood surprised me by turning out to be one of the best.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Super Bowl Monday

Super Bowl Monday: from the Persian Gulf to the shores of west Florida: The New York Giants, the Buffalo Bills, and Super Bowl XXV
by Adam Lazarus
Lanham, Md. : Taylor Trade Pub., 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.*

Super Bowl XXV was held at the end of the 1990 season, a fantastic game between the Buffalo Bills - the new team on the block with a dynamic offense - and the New York Giants - the old guard, big on defense and a running game. Headed up by Jim Kelly and backup quarterback Jeff Hostetler, these teams competed in an exciting, closely contested game devoid of turnovers.

The subtitle "From the Persian Gulf to the Shores of West Florida: The New York Giants, the Buffalo Bulls, and Super Bowl XXV" is a little misleading. The Persian Gulf War is more of a backdrop, going on behind the scenes, and affecting the game in such ways as increasing security, and the discussion over whether or not the game should go on during a war. Really, it's all about the football. Lazarus begins by showing Hostetler and Kelly rising through the ranks in college to play in the NFL, overviews the season and playoffs, before diving in to the heart of the narrative: Super Bowl XXV. The play-by-play of this game is at the heart of the book and where Lazarus' writing really shines. He throws in other things, too, such as flashbacks to previous Super Bowls and a chapter on the assistant coaches working with the Giants who would go on to have fantastic careers of their own (Belichick and Coughlin, anyone?), but I found this gave the narrative a staccato rhythm, instead of building up momentum to the final play of the game. Also, he goes on a bit too long in the final chapters of "after" the big game, and I started to lose interest. Lazarus has clearly done his research and extensive interviews in 2010, so the inclusion of players' and coaches' reminiscences add a lot. If you're a Giants or a Bills fan - or even if you're just a football fan - it's worth a look.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Book Thief

by Martin Zusak
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.

Death narrates the story of Liesel Meminger, a nine-year-old girl who goes to live with foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann in the late 1930s Germany.

I first read this when it came out in the United States in 2006, and read it this time around for a book group. I was shocked to find that while I had the impression of the book - a thought-and-tear-provoking read - deeply ingrained, I didn't remember much of the story at all. As a result, this reread was just as powerful and moving as I remember my first being. Death as the narrator is eminently appropriate, not only because of the subject matter but because, while he is sympathetic, he makes observations of humans as an outsider. This is at once a troubling and beautiful read that I highly recommend.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Frontier Wolf

by Rosemary Sutcliff
New York : Dutton, 1981, c1980.

Alexios is twenty-three, young to be as highly ranked as he is in the Roman Eagles, but his uncle is the Dux Britanniarum, and he has risen quickly. When his superior, Centurion Critos, is killed in battle young Alexios suddenly finds himself in command, and he makes an ill-fated decision. Now, he faces the consequences and is sent to the north to lead the Frontier Wolves. Can he ever recover from his mistakes and earn the respect of these men?

I've been slowly reading through the Dolphin Cycle series in chronological order, leading up to the book that I own, The Lantern Bearers. Up until this title, I've been enjoying the books alright, but a little bemused at how lauded Rosemary Sutcliff is. Frontier Wolf changed that for me. I found myself drawn in by the rich descriptions, slowing my reading down so that I could pick up on details (if I blinked and scanned a page too fast, I found that I had missed key information about a character or a season change). The plot unfolds slowly, so that for the first half of the book I wondered where it was going to end, and for the second half I realized how inevitable the results were. There is nothing to mark these as exclusively children's books: the main character is in his twenties, and the pace develops slowly while the characters and description carry the book for some time. Not to mention, this one deals with war in a very realistic way and had such a melancholy tone. I don't think most children would pick up on the nuances of the story, but perhaps I do not give young readers as much credit as the author obviously does. While it's not perfect - the dialog still sounds stilted at times, for example - this book left me excited to read the next book in the series.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Wonder

by R.J. Palacio
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

August Pullman, Auggie for short, is going to start fifth grade this year. He's been homeschooled all along, because he's needed multiple surgeries and has a genetic disorder that means he just doesn't look like other people. Told in multiple voices, Wonder tells the story of his first year in school, dealing with the challenges of family and friends from the perspective of a person whom people look at differently because of his appearance.

I found this story heartwarming and powerful. I rooted for Auggie, and really loved him as a character. He acknowledges that people see him as different, but because of the parts of the story in his perspective, we also see that inside, he's just a normal 10-year-old kid. We can also see the perspectives of his sister, Via, and a boy at school, Jack. Each voice is unique and adds to the overall picture readers have of Auggie and the challenges he faces in school. If you loved Rules by Cynthia Lord, I highly recommend this book as well. Not many books make me cry: this one did.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Goblin War

by Hilari Bell
New York : HarperTeen, 2011.

Previously reviewed The Goblin Wood and The Goblin Gate. Makenna, Tobin and the goblins want to leave the Otherworld before it drains their magic and their lives. Tobin is so sick that Makenna is desperate to cast another gate. Meanwhile, Jeriah begins to realize that despite Master Lazur's contemptible methods, he was right about one thing: the barbarian threat makes relocation necessary, despite the fact that none of the lords want to leave their lands. Can he convince the Hierarch that anything Lazur wanted could be good for the Realm?

The Goblin War wraps up The Goblin Wood trilogy fairly satisfactorily. All three characters are given equal time as they work apart but together to save the Realm from the Duri (the barbarians) and their odd magic. This series is a bit younger and not as complex as some of Bell's others, which may be why it's not one of my absolute favorites (in case you're wondering, those would be The Farsala Trilogy and the Knight and Rogue novels). The ending was a bit rushed after the climax, and I still had some questions about what would happen when I turned the last page. Still, this is a fast-paced, imaginative fantasy, and I enjoyed the time spent reading it.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Defending Jacob

by William Landay
New York : Delacorte Books, c2012.

Andy Barber, the first assistant DA in Newton, recounts the horrible murder of his son's classmate, Ben Rifkin, and his attempt to find Ben's killer, until he is taken off the case because evidence seems to point to his son, Jacob.

Can you imagine a more terrible thing than your child being accused of murder? Barber's story is harrowing in more ways than one. We jump right into the story with Andy being interviewed by a former co-worker in a grand jury indictment - just exactly what this indictment is and for whom, we don't know, but the pace drives towards the merging of these two story lines as the reader starts to imagine what really happened one fall day before school started. This is the rare book that I'm absolutely wowed by but don't think I could ever reread because it was so emotionally draining. I highly recommend this, even more so if you can find someone to read and discuss it with.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Bitterblue

by Kristin Cashore
New York, NY : Dial Books, 2012.

**Spoiler warning for Graceling.**

When we first met Bitterblue, she was a scared ten-year-old girl fleeing her father, King Leck, who had the terrifying ability to change people's perception of reality. Katsa and Po rescued her then; eight years later, they are still her friends as she attempts to heal Monsea from Leck's reign and determine the truth of what happened while he was king. She starts leaving the castle dressed as a servant, and finds that someone does not want to let the truth get out.

Bitterblue brings together the stories of Graceling and Fire, showing us the aftereffects of the rule of a twisted, sick man. She is young, though, and doesn't know a lot about what happened during her father's reign, nor can she lean on her memories as being accurate because of Leck's Grace. I read this fast - over two evenings - so I'm still reeling a little bit trying to frame my thoughts in a way that make sense. I had some niggling issues with how it seemed that Bitterblue's escapades in the city are at the convenience of moving the plot forward, but again, since I was reading so fast I'm not sure that there weren't some clues as to why she leaves when that I skipped right over in my thirst to know what happens next.

Overall, I found it a satisfying read and would probably reread the series in a few years given the chance.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Hit Lit

Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century's Biggest Bestsellers
by James W. Hall
New York : Random House Trade Paperbacks, c2012.

When I think of capital-L Literature, I usually think of what you read in high school and college: tomes or thematically difficult books that I analyzed to death as an English major. So it surprised me to discover in the foreword of Hit Lit, an exploration of bestsellers, that author James W. Hall had his start in academia with a specialization in postmodern literature. When he had this idea to teach bestsellers - and not just your run-of-the-mill gets on the list for a few weeks and then drops away, but multimillion copies selling still popular books - he discovered that these books had several things in common.

He focuses on the following twelve titles:
  • Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  • The Godfather by Mario Puzo
  • The Dead Zone by Stephen King
  • Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann
  • The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy
  • The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
  • Jaws by Peter Benchley
  • Peyton Place by Grace Metalious
  • To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller
  • The Firm by John Grisham
  • The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

I recommend that you read the books on the list that you intend to before tackling Hit Lit, unless you don't mind massive spoilers. If you haven't read some titles, or don't intend to, the Appendix has an overview of the plot of each. Hall explains why he chose each book, and then goes on to argue what they have in common and what the American public finds so appealing about them, including elements such as the pace and sympathetic charaters. Hall's points are thought-provoking, though his comments about each book did get a little repetitive; since I tended to read it in large chunks, I hadn't had time to forget the last time he mentioned some examples that get repeated when making a different point later. He is tongue-in-cheek at times, but generally is not snobby in his approach and truly seems to have respect for popular reading. An entertaining and sometimes thought-provoking read.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Seabiscuit: An American Legend

by Laura Hillenbrand
New York : Ballantine Books, 2002 (originally published 2001).

In the mid-1930s, an unlikely team of men and horse took the racing world by storm. Charles Howard made his fortune selling cars, but purchased racing horses and loved the limelight. Tom Smith was a horse trainer with a unique horse sense and methods. Jockey Red Pollard was a witty, hard-fighting competitor who read classics and affectionately referred to Emerson as "Old Waldo." And then there was Seabiscuit: a stocky, short-legged horse who loved to sleep but also loved to run.

I bought this book years ago at the library book sale and it has languished on my shelves unread. In fact, I had it so long I finally put it in the box of books ready to donate back to the book sale. Then I read Unbroken, and was so completely blown away I had to dig this book out and put it back on my shelves. So, needless to say, I'm a bit behind the times in reading and loving this book. Hillenbrand deftly paints a picture of a moment in history, of a detail that makes it come alive, and of the people involved in these events. This is true in both of her books, though the subjects are very different. Seabiscuit's story is both inspiring and bittersweet, and if you happened to have put it on your pile of books that has been there so long you've nearly given up - give it a chance. Like me, you may be glad you did.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Gillespie and I

by Jane Harris
New York : Harper Perennial, 2012 (published in the UK in 2011).

Miss Harriet Baxter, in 1933, is writing her memoirs recounting events in 1888 when she traveled to Glasgow and befriending struggling artist Ned Gillespie and his family.

This is a difficult book to talk about without giving spoilers, but I shall try. I've given only a bare bones account of the plot because the brilliance of the book is the way the story unfolds as Harriet narrates her story and how the reader's interpretations evolve in the course of the story. As I was reading, I was struck by the thought that in young adult literature a first-person narration means that you can get to know a character because you're in their heads and reading their thoughts while in adult or literary fiction, you actually know the character less. It's a good book to read slowly, partly because of the writing, but mostly because it's deceptively complex. I'm still pondering the book, not sure exactly how much I liked it, but at the same time I want to find someone who's finished it so I can talk about it.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Insurgent

by Veronica Roth
New York : Katherine Tegen Books, 2012.

**Spoiler warning for the first in the series, Divergent**

On the run from the old Dauntless compound, Tris, Tobias, and the others go to Amity for help. Will the faction that wants peace and accord above all else ally with them against Erudite? While there, Tris discovers that Tobias' father, Marcus, knows something important about why Jeanine attacked Abnegation, and she's determined to find out what's going on.

Ever since a friend had me read Divergent, I've been waiting for the sequel. I was one of the first people to put a hold on the library record (before anyone had the book in). The day it came in, I snagged it immediately and started reading it on my first break. The story picks up exactly where Divergent left off, and I was a little afraid I would lose out because I hadn't reread the first book and couldn't remember who everyone was and what had happened. But Roth does a good job of reintroducing characters and their situations in a natural way, and I was soon speeding along, lost in the story. I liked the development of Tris and Tobias; they each have secrets, and they have to deal with how that affects their relationship. The narrative clips along at a fast pace, taking turns here and there which sometimes surprised me and sometimes didn't, but I was enjoying myself so much I didn't mind when the revelations were not entirely unexpected. The end definitely left me wanting more - I predict I'll do exactly what I did with this one when Book 3 comes out.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Gentlemen of the Road

by Michael Chabon
New York: Ballantine Books, c2008, 2007.

Two swash-buckling Jews, Amram and Zelikman, travel in search of adventure - or perhaps adventure/trouble is in search of them - in the region of the Caspian Sea in the 10th century. I hesitate to say more, because the fun is in seeing how their story unfolds. I can just imagine Chabon unwrapping his story, a sort of homage to the old-fashioned adventure story but one that is delightfully unique. I seem to remember putting it on my ever-growing TBR list when it was brought up at a Readers' Advisory library workshop as a title that is particularly hard to categorize: Is it adventure? Historical fiction? Literary? Yes.

Though it is a fairly short novel (less than 200 pages), and I turned pages quickly, I never did have that moment where I was so engaged and involved that I practically forgot I was reading. Perhaps it was because it took me until halfway through to realize that this was set in a real place and time (Khazaria, 10th century). Perhaps it was because I had to have my dictionary out - not just because I wanted to learn the new words, but because I sometimes couldn't picture what was described without it. Perhaps I am just not the right reader in the right mood for this book. Gentlemen of the Road was a fun story that made me aware of a part of history I'd never known before, and while I may not be inclined to read this particular title again, I'm certainly intrigued enough to try the other Chabon titles on my TBR list sooner rather than later.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Best American Short Stories 2011

edited by Geraldine Brooks (book) and Heidi Pitlor (series)
Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.

This book presents 20 stories originally published in US or Canadian periodicals between January 2010 and January 2011, culled from 120 by author Geraldine Brooks. After a foreword and an introduction, by the series editor and the book editor respectively, in which they both discussed the "sameness" of short stories, I knew I was in for a unique collection.

Like any collection, there were some that I hated and some that I loved. Most I liked, in some form or another. Mostly, I admire the form of the short story and how an author can say so much in so little space where every word counts and not an image is wasted. So while I never rate a collection highly if I rate it at all (because I wouldn't read the whole collection from cover to cover again), I really enjoy the time spent dipping into these collections. (After all, even if I really hated a story, I've discovered an author to stay away from!)

Of the stories that stood out to me, I enjoyed "Property" by Elizabeth McCracken, which was bittersweet but the first story I really connected to, and "Phantoms" by Stephen Millhauser, which was deliciously creepy without being horror. Honorable mention goes to "The Sleep" by Caitlin Horrocks about a town that decides to hibernate, and which just begs for discussion - I asked by English major brother to read it because I wanted to see what he came away with. But my absolute favorite of the collection was "To the Measures Fall" by Richard Powers. Its format is really unique, using second person and questions at the end of each section that are reminiscent of English tests. This could have distracted me from the story itself, except for the premise: you discover a used book that eventually becomes part of your life, even though its meaning and your responses change over time. I could relate so well that it doesn't matter that the "you" in story is quite a bit older than me and has a life ultimately different from mine. That experience is one I can understand.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

A Passion for Books


edited by Harold Rabinowitz and Rob Kaplan
New York : Times Books, c1999.

The subtitle summarizes this collection better than I can: "A book lover's treasury of stories, essays, humor, lore, and lists on collecting, reading, borrowing, lending, caring for, and appreciating books." The only things in this collection left out in the subtitle are comics and quotes on books and reading.

Do you love to read? Do you love books just for the feel of them, for their presence in your home? Then this sort of collection, a book about books, is likely the type of read you'd be drawn to whether I had anything good to say about it or not. Fortunately, I found it to be a lot of fun dipping into this collection, whether reading for a prolonged period of time or trying to fit an essay into my lunch break.

I especially enjoyed "Lending Books" by Anatole Broyard, "Pillow Books" by Clifton Fadiman," "Invasion of the Book Envelopes" by John Updike, and "Why Does Nobody Collect Me?" by Robert Benchley. On the whole, the essays on collecting interested me less than others - but then, I'd be surprised if such a collection met my individual reading tastes precisely. This is the sort of book I would enjoy owning so I could simply read a selection of my choosing whenever I wanted and leave the rest behind. (Oh, let's be honest, what I'd really love to is to have a hundred such books and select my own favorites for compilation!) Recommended to all who would immediately identify themselves as Readers, and even more so to collectors.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Screwtape Letters


by C.S. Lewis
New York: HarperCollins, 2001 (orig. pub. 1943).

Screwtape, an old demon, writes letters of advice to his nephew Wormwood, who is on assignment tempting a young man with the ultimate goal of bringing his soul to Hell.

This has long been one of my favorites of Lewis' works, and a friend's recent read of it for a class prompted me to pick it up and reread it along with her. To my surprise, I found that though I've owned a copy for over a year, I have not reread it in the last six years or so (when I started tracking my reading). As a result, it didn't have the same sort of immediate familiarity of a yearly reread; it was more a gradual recognition as I read a letter and thought, "Oh yeah, I remember that now!" I had a lot of fun revisiting the book: it's at once humorous and hard-hitting, even convicting. The essay at the end, "Screwtape Proposes a Toast" was, if not entirely new, one I had forgotten entirely. In it, he talks about the way in which the idea of "democracy" can be twisted in education, and I was really amazed at how prescient some of Lewis' predictions were.

I've been debating whether or not I would recommend it to someone who didn't share Lewis' faith, and ultimately I would say, if the conceit interests you, then go ahead and try it, but I think that like his apologetic works it would really interest and have the greatest impact on those who already agreed with a Christian worldview.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Girl of Fire and Thorns


by Rae Carson
New York : Greenwillow Books, 2011.

Elisa is the chosen one. She has a Godstone on her navel, a blue stone that is only given to one person in a century to do something great for God. The only trouble is, she doesn't feel all that special and she doesn't know what she's supposedly called to do. With her marriage and war approaching, sixteen-year-old Elisa will have to find her purpose fast.

Just looking at the cover was enough to make me want to read this book. Elisa is a great heroine - she starts out unhappy, fat, and unsure of herself and grows into a much more self-reliant person. The plot keeps moving in twists and turns as we discover more about Elisa as the chosen one and the Inviernes, the foes which threaten Elisa's homeland and her new kingdom. The God of the world is mysterious, and didn't seem to have any overt, one-on-one correspondence to any one religion in our world. This is the kind of book you want to keep reading late into the night, and though it's the first in a projected trilogy, it's a deeply satisfying ending.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Timeless


by Gail Carriger
New York : Orbit, 2012.

For my reviews of earlier books in the series, check out Soulless, Changeless, Blameless, and Heartless. (Whew!)

Lord and Lady Maccon have been living in Lord Akeldama's third closet for some time now, as the London vampire has become the adoptive parent of their child, Prudence. At only two years old, Prudence shows every indication that she will be as difficult as, well, either of her parents. All is going as normally as could be expected for this vampire-werewolf-preternatural alliance, until Alexia receives a summons to Egypt. It seems that the vampire queen there is very interested in Prudence, a metanatural.

Normally here I would explain what I liked or didn't like about the book, but as this is the fifth book in a series I've been enjoying all along, it's really hard to do that now. If you've liked the series, you'll want to read it for the fun and imagination and wittiness and silliness. If you haven't liked it, there's really nothing I can say about this one to convince you otherwise. Suffice it to say that I found it an excellent distraction from all the other, more serious books that I've had to read lately. These are the sorts of books I could see becoming my comfort reads when I need something to make me laugh.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Dead End in Norvelt


by Jack Gantos
New York : Farrar Straus Giroux, 2011.

Young Jack Gantos is growing up in the town of Norvelt, Pennsylvania, a town that was founded by Eleanor Roosevelt as a place where poor people could live with dignity and where folks could trade their services instead of depend on cash. Now, in the decade after World War 2, the Norvelt "originals" are older and dying, and poor Jack is grounded because he let off his father's gun and caused a scare. Miss Volker, his older neighbor with arthritic hands, is Jack's "get out of jail free" card when she calls and needs his help writing obituaries.

This year's Newbery Award winner is the first book I've read by Jack Gantos, but now I want to go back and read his other books. His narrative follows a typical summer in that it's more episodic a traditional plot line, though Norvelt has its share of quirky, original characters and more than a few of the events are unbelievable. Jack's parents are great, and their interactions ring true, how they disagree fundamentally about some things, but also love each other as much as they drive each other nuts. I was regularly chuckling or even laughing out loud at some of the events (some of the obits in particular stand out memorably). This story was a lot of fun to read, and I'll certainly be recommending it to kids at the library.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Wednesday Wars


by Gary Schmidt
narrated by Joel Johnstone
New York : Scholastic Audiobooks, p2007.

Holling Hoodhood is the only Presbyterian in his class, which means that on Wednesday afternoons when half his classmates go to Hebrew school and the other half go to CCD, he's stuck in the classroom with his teacher, Mrs. Baker. At first, she gives him chores to do, but then she starts having him read Shakespeare.

I'm rather ashamed to say I've been putting this book off, despite the acclaim it's received and the recommendations I've received from others on LT. The truth is, I found Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy depressing, and was afraid I'd be in for the same sort of book. What I didn't realize at all was how incredibly funny The Wednesday Wars is. I listened to quite a bit of it on my commute to work, and narrator Joel Johnstone not only has a pitch-perfect reading sounding like a middle school boy, he also brings out the humor in every situation (I will never think of cream puffs in exactly the same way again...).

Though the book is set in 1967-68, and the Vietnam War and politics are mentioned, what is the center of the book is not these historical events, but Holling's growth as an individual. Holling struck me as a typical teenager in his developing empathy, on the one hand seeing how an interaction affected both an adult and his schoolmate and, not too long later, telling his teacher he didn't think she had any problems to speak of. Because of this, even in a first-person narration we get to know several other characters well as Holling comes to understand them better. The only character that seemed rather one-dimensional to me was his father who is, frankly, a jerk. I'm so glad I finally got around to reading this, and will definitely be moving the companion book Okay for Now on my TBR list.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Downton Abbey, or, How I Learned What All the Fuss was about


The World of Downton Abbey
by Jessica Fellowes
St. Martin's Press, 2011.

*Warning: spoilers follow for the first two seasons of Downton Abbey*

So I don't know about you, but in my library the availability of the DVD of the first season of Downton Abbey meant a flurry of holds and a lot of conversation about the Masterpiece Theatre presentation. I put it on hold to see what all the fuss was about, and the first time I got the DVD I didn't even watch it before I had to return it to the library. Second try was the charm, though, and I not only watched the first season in - ahem - one day, I promptly looked up when the second season was going to be on PBS, and watched that all over the same holiday weekend. I found myself fascinated, loving the picture of a world one hundred years ago, at once familiar (cars, telephones) and strange (servants, social class, World War 1). I picked up some of the class differences and societal tensions, but as an American in the 21st century, I know there's a lot going on that I didn't understand, or just wasn't sure about (how normal would it be, for example, if a young woman had run off and married the chauffeur in that era, for her mother to stay in contact with her and want her to visit?).

That, ultimately, is why I decided to read this book. In all fairness, in a book like this covering everything from family life to style to World War 1 to a servants' life, none of my questions are going to be answered in depth. But, if you enjoyed the show, a little bit of everything is explored through its lens, through what we saw the characters experience, plus giving us more period detail from diaries and books about people who really lived then. I didn't learn the specifics, like my example question above, but there is still a bit more detail here than can be conveyed in an hour long program.

And then there's the photography. Wow! You can really appreciate the attention to detail when looking at photographs of the sets, of the actors, and of Highclere Castle. There are lots of quotes from the actors and the show sprinkled throughout the text and photographs. The final chapter is more a "making of" than the historical background, and it really made me appreciate all the work that went into making Downton Abbey as good as it is.

Finally, the recommended reads at the end (unfortunately for me, since I want to read everything and I have to figure out which books were mentioned more than once) is organized by chapter, so if you are most interested in any one particular aspect of the Downton Abbey world, it's quite easy to follow up on just what you're looking for. Highly recommended to any fan of the show.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Midnight in Austenland


by Shannon Hale
New York : Bloomsbury USA, 2012.

Charlotte Kinder is not heroine material. She's a divorced mother of two who reads Agatha Christie novels, and after her husband had an affair and left her, her heart's pretty numb. But after she breaks out of her mystery fix to read Jane Austen, she decides to go off to Austenland in which can act like one of Austen's beloved heroines for two weeks while being romanced by a dashing gentlemen - all in Regency-appropriate behavior (and capped with a ball).

Shannon Hale may be better known for her teen fantasy books, but her chick lit is just as much fun. In this book, as in Austenland, she proves how much of an Austen fan she is, even while providing a fun, modern story in its own right. Unbelievable at times? Oh sure, but I didn't really care in the end. I didn't remember much of what happened in the first book in the series, but Midnight in Austenland stands just fine on its own. I especially enjoyed the clear references to Northanger Abbey and laughed out loud at Charlotte's "Inner Thoughts" talking back to her.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky


by Heidi W. Durrow
Chapel Hill, N.C. : Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010.

Rachel lives with her grandmother because her mother, in a fit of depression, pushed her children and jumped off the roof of a nine-story apartment complex. Rachel survived.

This is the sort of book that I don't necessarily like while I'm reading, but as it lingers in my mind and I turn over elements of it in my thoughts, I realize how powerful and beautiful it was. The structure is a little difficult. Rachel's narrates her parts of the story, while the experiences of Laronne (her mother's boss), Jamie (the boy who witnessed her brother falling), and others are interspersed in a story that covers about five years in non-chronological order.

As if her mother's suicide and her siblings' deaths weren't enough to deal with, Rachel is of mixed race, the daughter of a Danish mother and a black father, and has to deal with racism and people in the black community telling her she's "acting white." But the book doesn't read like an "issues" book, it's just Rachel's story of adolescence, growing up, finding her identity and understanding her past. It's very internal, almost a collection of impressions rather than a straightforward plot. A few sentences made me stop in my tracks because I had to think about them, rather than rush on to the end. The story itself is how Rachel describes the blues: storing up all sorts of sadness, but making something beautiful out of it.