Friday, June 28, 2013

Ain't Nothing But a Man

Ain't Nothing but a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John HenryAin't Nothing but a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry by Scott Reynolds Nelson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A historian tells the fascinating story of how he uncovered the tragic truth behind the folk songs about the American hero John Henry.

In the days of the transcontinental railroad, 40,000 Southern trackliners (mainly African-Americans) were erased by history. No one recorded their experiences. All researchers have left are scattered records and the work songs these forgotten men sang.

Scott Reynolds Nelson, author of Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend, recounts his quest for a young audience. Many different versions of the songs about John Henry's race with the steam engine exist, but one verse in particular - combined with a clue on an old postcard - led Nelson to look more closely at the Virginia Penitentiary: a place where the bones of 300 men were discovered buried in sand without any markers. That mass grave led the historian to the sad truth behind John Henry's ballad.

Ain't Nothing But a Man is an intriguing story of how historical research happens and of how the American transcontinental railroad was built (though some of the technical explanations were less than clear). Using illustrations from old photographs, socialist art, and old diagrams, Nelson relates a small part of the history of how the labor of thousands of unknown men led to tunnels through mountains and steel roads across America.

I only wish that Nelson had told us a little more about the reaction to finding the bodies at Virginia Penitentiary, and what happened to them after they were discovered. Where were they reburied? Did anyone search for the men's descendants?

The appendices are great for teachers hoping to get kids excited about historical research, and offer a few tips for doing your own fact-finding as well as plenty annotated sources for further reading.

A few of the books mentioned in the appendix:

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer (Necromancer, #1)Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When a sinister stranger recognizes fry cook Sam as a fellow necromancer, it may not be long before Sam ends up joining the dead people he can suddenly see.

Douglas Montgomery is a powerful necromancer, and he soon makes Sam an offer he can't refuse. (The Godfather's horse head in the bed has nothing on Douglas's idea of "sending a message".) Now Sam has to figure out the mystery of his own secret power before Douglas kills him.

Sam and his friends are full of quippy dialogue and pop-culture references that offset the frequent bloody violence and some by-the-numbers plotting. The paranormal creatures seem abundant in rainy Seattle, but they are all kept in check by a Council of their own kind - so there are plenty of critters aside from the usual werewolves, vampires, ghosts, and necromancers.

Will definitely appeal to fans of Christopher Moore's Bloodsucking Fiends and its sequels, or for Eoin Colfer's The Wish List. The sequel to Necromancer is Necromancing the Stone, and there's a third, untitled book in the works.

Also: it has an undead panda. Yeah, you heard me right.

16-week-old giant panda cub, Hua Mei, at the San Diego Zoo.
Like this, only deader.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin

The Dark Days of Hamburger HalpinThe Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin by Josh Berk
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Will Halpin is your ordinary deaf kid starting all over at a new school: he grudgingly befriends the geekiest kid, and hopelessly falls for the prettiest girl - then moves on to solving the death of the star quarterback.

The book is a slow starter, focusing on Will's reaction to starting at his new school and the new people around him. He has difficulties in a school where no one knows much about deafness - teachers forget to turn their faces toward him so he can lipread, he can't hear the bell announcing the end of class, and no one around him speaks American sign language. Sometimes the teachers and students are even casually cruel or willfully ignorant.

Devon Smiley, the only person who bothers talking to Will, is possibly also the only kid lower on the social ladder. Will takes it all in stride, determined to mainstream after fighting the deaf politics at his old school. There are a lot of serious issues in this book besides the murder - Coaler High is full of ugly secrets.

When the mystery finally kicks in halfway through, Will and his new friend Devon Smiley form a Chet and Frank Hardy amateur sleuth team to track down the truth. It's not much of a mystery, but Will is an appealing  character and his voice carries the book.

A few suggestions for further reading:
Young detectives who are not the Hardy Boys:

More books with deaf protagonists:

  • Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John - Piper is a fantastic character who manages a band called Dumb - even though Piper can't hear their music
  • Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick - This book tells its story through words and illustrations as two young people in different follow similar paths into New York City

If you want to learn another language (even knowing only how to fingerspell helped Devon and Will communicate):

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Caliban's War

Caliban's War (Expanse, #2)Caliban's War by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When simmering tensions erupt into war, Jim Holden races to discover the fate of a child whose kidnapping may hold the key to ending the conflict - hoping that humanity won't cripple itself before the alien weapon incubating on Venus shows its teeth.

Mars and Earth are locked into fighting that will result in a death spiral for humanity. Everyone's lost sight of the real problem blooming on Venus: the protomolecule has eerily transformed the entire planet, and no one knows why. Faced with a terrifying and incomprehensible threat, the various factions fall back into familiar patterns of strife.

The familiar faces of Holden and his Rocinante crew are back, still reeling from the effect of Detective Miller's kamikaze morality a full year after his death. They begin a hunt for a botanist's missing daughter and uncover a new conspiracy to weaponize the alien protomolecule. (We all knew that was coming.)

Added to this cast are the welcome presences of two new women: Bobbie, a hulking Martian Marine, and Avasarala, a sweet old granny who likes calling people the c-word and is one of the most politically powerful humans in the solar system.

It's great to see epic science fiction that features such diverse characters, characters who feel like real people and are most fun when they conflict with each other. (The meeting of the idealist Holden and the intensely cynical force of nature that is Avasarala was a fun, too-brief moment.) Critics of the first book's two main characters being white males should be happy.

The mystery here is less compelling than Leviathan Wakes because the alien's already out of the bag. Some of Caliban's War feels like a rehash of what came before, but the characters are still worth spending time with as they struggle with doing the right thing and trying not to allow the human race to self-destruct.

But then came the holy crap ending. Now I'm asking myself: how can I get my hands on the last book, as of yesterday? The holds list for Abaddon's Gate at my library is absurdly long.
  • Quotable: “Good, because I don’t use sex as a weapon,” Bobbie said. “I use weapons as weapons.”
  • Am I the only one who finds Naomi utterly boring?
  • I really liked Praxidike Meng's idea of table talk.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Daughter of Smoke & Bone (Daughter of Smoke & Bone, #1)Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Karou is a blue-haired artist in Prague whose free time is spent running errands for monsters - until one day she is attacked by a seraphim and beings to learn the truth about herself and her own world. Karou and the seraphim Akiva feel an instant attraction to each other, but they are on opposite sides of a centuries-long conflict and the rift may be too deep to cross.

Karou struck me as a bit of a Jack Reacher-esque super-character: she speaks a dozen languages flawlessly, is a talented artist, knows martial arts, and is impossibly beautiful and skinny. This makes her a little tough to like (I'm someone who got sick of Paul Atreides in Dune because he basically turns into Jesus at the end, and overly perfect characters are a tad boring*.) She also has mysterious origins

Akiva has fiery wings, which immediately puts me into his corner. Perfect people are boring, but kick-ass angels are another matter.**
Castiel from Supernatural
Akiva's been bred as a soldier and years before lost the love of his life, a woman named Madrigal. He's gorgeous, deadly, and trying to kill Karou because of her association with her family of monsters. (So the scene where he watches her sleep has a much different vibe than Twilight's love-stalking. Akiva is just stalking-stalking.Which makes it...okay?)

It's difficult to remain objective about this series because I've heard so many raves about it from friends. The romance is suitably tortured and swoony, the action intriguing, and the side characters appealing (particularly Brimstone and his fellow chimeras). Karou's world is dark and fascinating: I particularly loved the Prague setting, and hope that the other worlds get more complex and fleshed-out in the next two books.

The backstory slowly unfolds and sheds light onto current events as well as the way Brimstone's creepy magic (which uses teeth to make wishes) works, and I'm intrigued to know what happens next. I'll certainly pick up Days of Blood & Starlight, and eagerly await Dreams of Gods & Monsters for 2014.

*Except Jesus. He's great.
**"My true form is approximately the size of your Chrysler Building."

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Lost Art of Reading

The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted TimeThe Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time by David L. Ulin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a book-length meditation on reading which started out life as this editorial in the L.A. Times. As essays do, it wanders through the author's own experiences and political ideas. Fortunately, he's not a Luddite and accepts e-reading as reading, and even considers that reading on the Internet may also be real reading: his point is that we have lost the ability of paying sustained attention to anything, particularly books.

Interesting premise, but I'm not sure this expansion is an improvement of the original essay. It doesn't cover new ground, and it doesn't retread the old territory better than other books of this type. An exceptional reading memoir is Francis Spufford's lovely The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading.

Ulin makes good points about the drawbacks of ebook technology, points I've heard before: limited selection (you can find Faulkner now!), readers' inability to share ebooks, censorship and the threat a monopoly poses to our shared cultural heritage. Ebooks can close up our reading choices, unlike the openness of books on shelves that your friends can see and comment upon. (I've had some great conversations at my bookshelves, but rarely around my Nook and never around my iPad.) Also, reading books on a device like an iPad invites distraction - and I suppose I proved Ulin's point by being distracted as I read by looking up the books and articles he mentions while at the same time taking notes for this review.

Further reading:
Ulin mentions the book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas G. Carr (another book that began life as an essay, this one for the Atlantic Monthly).

Everyone interested in information and libraries should read Jorge Luis Borges' short story "The Library of Babel"! Borges' story may be magical realism, but the slim So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance by Gabriel Zaid (translated by Natasha Wimmer) reveals our book-glutted reality and may make you rethink your relationship to your "To Read" list.

  • "How do we pause when we must know everything in an instant? How do we ruminate when we are constantly expected to respond? How do we immerse in something (an idea, an emotion, a decision) when we are no longer willing to give ourselves the space to reflect?" - 78
  • "In December 2009, a study by the Global Information Industry Center at the University of California, San Diego, found that, 'in 2008, Americans consumed information for about 1.3 trillions hours, an average of almost 12 hours per day. Consumption totaled 3.6 zettabytes and 10,845 trillion words, corresponding to 100,500 words and 34 gigabytes for an average person on an average day.' One hundred thousand words is the equivalent of a three-hundred-page novel, and it's encouraging to learn that we all read that much." - 81
  • "For the culture, though, books serve as a collective soul, a memory bank, bigger than mere commerce, not only to be bought and sold. When we can't share them, directly, one-to-one, our common informational heritage is compromised." - 123

Monday, June 17, 2013


The BFGThe BFG by Roald Dahl
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When Sophie is carried away from her orphanage one night by a giant, she fears the worst - but the dream-catching, snozzcumber-eating, whizzpopper-producing BFG is quite unlike his child-devouring relatives.

Dahl's books are full of humor that adults find horrifying and children find hilarious. The other giants - with vivid monikers like Fleshlumpeater, Childchewer, and Bloodbottler - are ferocious but only almost as disgusting as the Twits (definitely crueler than the three farmers, though). There are quite a few slyly told fart jokes here, plus jabs at yucky vegetables and foolish adults.

Sophie is an admirable heroine, taking her outlandish adventures in stride. She is a tiny David, bravely plotting to save the people of the world from gluttonous Goliaths. (She's also another British orphan who wears glasses and befriends giants - I sense a theme.)

The BFG is a particularly Dahl-esque character. He's lovable, but odd: "Sophie watched with astonishment. What a strange and moody creature this is, she thought. One moment he is telling me my head is full of squashed flies and the next moment his heart is melting for me because Mrs. Clonkers locks us in the cellar." He also has a unique way of talking - the giant on his usual food: " 'It's disgusterous!' the BFG gurgled. 'It's sickable! It's rotsome! It's maggotwise! Try it yourself, this foulsome snozzcumber!' "

If you're looking for another funny children's classic that makes adults uneasy, check out Which Witch by Eva Ibbotson. For a classic David verses Goliath tale (where Goliath is actually a truck), try The Pushcart War by Jean Merrill.

In closing:
  • Dahl's British sense of humor: "If you can think of anything more terrifying than that happening to you in the middle of the night, then let's hear about it."
  • A butler named Mr. Tibbs who is the equal of Jeeves and whose description is a great vocabulary builder: "A man does not rise to become the Queen's butler unless he is gifted with extraordinary ingenuity, adaptability, versatility, dexterity, cunning, sophistication, sagacity, discretion, and a host of other talents that neither you nor I possess."
  • Cameo by an unflappable Queen Elizabeth! Her nose is distinctly recognizable, thanks to Quentin Blake's always-charming illustrations.

Friday, June 14, 2013


BellwetherBellwether by Connie Willis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fad researcher Sandra Foster just wants to know what caused women to start bobbing their hair in the 1920s - but what she gets is an aggressively incompetent assistant, a longer budget request form, and a chance meeting with a man who seems immune to every trend.

Sandra sees herself as the sane point in the turning world - even though her hobby is systematically checking out her favorite books so that the library won't get rid of them, and every moment of her day is spent  analyzing pop culture. She struggles to understand why people are suddenly wearing duct tape armbands and rolling their eyes, and wishes that things like politeness and chocolate cheesecake would catch on.

Flip, Sandra's rude assistant, is possibly the most irritating character in literature (aside from Lydia Bennett), and she could be Ignatius J. Reilly's trainee When Flip's misdelivery of a package leads Sandra to the office of chaos researcher Bennett O'Reilly, Sandra doesn't realize that the chance meeting will lead her to borrow a flock of sheep just to keep the unconventional scientist around. This isn't even the craziest thing that happens in Bellwether.

Connie Willis has a way of writing that makes you feel as though you're inside a screwball comedy. The romance aspect here is slightly underplayed but charming (I could use more of Bennett). Sandra's company, HiTek, has a level of internal dysfunction to rival Office Space's TPS reports or the Feds' toilet paper memo in Snow Crash. Best of all, each chapter begins with fascinating tidbits about historical fads, from Hula Hoops to dancing mania to diorama wigs.

Bellwether is every bit as smart and funny as you expect a Connie Willis book to be, and the perfect way to start your summer reading.

Interested in the idea of complexity? Continue on with The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow, or Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Noble Groom

A Noble GroomA Noble Groom by Jody Hedlund
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When Annalisa Werner's abusive husband dies unexpectedly, her father sends for a groom from their homeland, Germany. But the man who arrives is neither her intended nor exactly who he claims to be - yet in spite of her doubts Annalisa feels herself drawn to his charm and kindness.

I haven't read Christian historical romance since I was a teenager devouring Janette Oke and Gilbert Morris by the truckload (and much later, Francine Rivers). But when I saw this great cover, with a handsome dude, cravat blowing in the wind, it called to me: then I realized it was a romance set on a Minnesotan farm in 1880 - and I was there. The characters are immigrants escaping social injustice in feudal Germany, determined to build new lives in the promise of American soil.

There is drama and danger: Annalisa's husband may have been murdered, Carl Richards is fleeing a death sentence, and the settlers are threatened by greedy businessmen, epidemics, and wildfires. Life is a daily struggle against the harshness of frontier life.

I encountered the usual problems with this type of romance: it's sentimental about children and animals, has old-fashioned gender roles, and there's more telling than showing. A Noble Groom is predictable in the way most romances are, though that's not a bad thing for a summer romance read. For anyone who loves gentle tales of love between God-fearing adults, this will certainly fit the bill (and is a cut above other fiction in the subgenre).

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Watership Down

Forced to flee their home warren by a frightening premonition, a group of rabbits journey through unexpected adventures and dangers to reach a place to call home.

Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, and their companions brave a warren of Lotus Eaters, predators, and a prison-like warren run by a terrifying Chief Rabbit to find the promised land of Watership Down. Interwoven throughout their adventures are the stories the rabbits tell along the way, constructing the mythology of an immortal trickster prince, El-ahrairah (literally, Prince of a Thousand Enemies, a kind of rabbit Robin Hood or Odysseus).

I love the book's portrayal of an "alien" mindset: the rabbits are foreign yet familiar. Their journey calls to mind echoes of The Aeneid and The Odyssey (particularly the latter, since the trickster nature of rabbits plays a huge role in the story). The writing evokes the English countryside beautifully, with special focus on the sounds and smells that are so meaningful to the characters' senses; from plant life to birds, plus the ever-present threat of predators. It is not an allegory (though it feels like it could be), just an old-fashioned adventure.

I would compare it to other classic quest narratives: from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit to C.S. Lewis' The Silver Chair, or The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford. For those attracted to El-ahrairah's exploits, check out another wily trickster king: Monkey, from the Chinese classic Journey to the West. Finally, if you finish and immediately want to hear more about Hazel and his warren, there is a collection of 19 more stories called Tales from Watership Down, also by Richard Adams.

Watership Down been one of my favorites since childhood, and I reread it every year, enjoying it as a familiar friend every time. My only wish is that there were even more books like it.

Monday, June 10, 2013


Under the influence of the "glass monster", Kristina leaves the straight and narrow and her life rapidly spirals out of control.

I can't think of an uglier, more excruciating story than that of meth addiction. Kristina relapses and falls hard, hitting every branch on the way down. She literally never makes a good decision, and it doesn't take long to get exhausted by her self-justifying thoughts, or her checking up on what level of buzz she has that day. Her thinking is so screwy it becomes logical to assume that whatever she does next, it'll be the most terrible choice she can make.

Without the interesting format of concrete poetry (with some of the verses forming billows of smoke or question marks, and others fragmenting as Kristina loses herself in the fog of meth), I never would have finished reading this painful story, sequel to Crank.

To Hopkins' credit, the story could easily play like an anti-drug PSA: as much as I disliked it for its unrelieved darkness, there is no arguing with Hopkins' abilities with character and language. Everything Kristina does makes a twisted kind of sense, since we are privy to her deepest thoughts. The present-tense, first-person narration moves in a fragmented, telegraphic style, and the action is always clear. Glass can easily be understood without reading the other books in the series. (Fallout, the third and final book, chronicles the lives of Kristina's abandoned children.)

In interviews and the afterward, Hopkins reveals that she based this story loosely on her own daughter's "walk with 'the monster' drug crystal meth." She has plenty of other series tackling difficult issues: suicide, incest, prostitution, and addiction - all the things parents pray they can shield their children from. I can see why the topics are controversial, but Hopkins doesn't go in for shock value for its own sake. In spite of the heavy drug use portrayed, there is no swearing and her depictions of sex are honest but not explicit. She's talking about real life, and sometimes real life is terrible and desperately sad.

For readalikes, check out the rest of Hopkins' series, Patricia McCormick's YA novels, or Neal Shusterman's contemporary YA fantasies.

That said, it's not the kind of story for me. If I want depressing, I'll go read a newspaper.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Ptolemy's Gate

Boy magician Nathaniel tightens his grip on the reins of power with help from his faithless djinn, Bartimaeus; meanwhile, Kitty Jones searches for a way to bring England's tyrannical magicians down.

Nathaniel, known as John Mandrake, is becoming increasingly disillusioned with the petty jostling for power that he sees among England's oligarchy of magicians. The prime minister is weak and paranoid, the war in America is going badly, and Nathaniel's role is limited to writing bad propaganda to convince the increasingly restless commoners that war is great. In his need for a connection, he's worn Bartimaeus down to a dripping pile of essence, fatally weakening the 5,000-year-old djinn by keeping him in constant service (without frequent trips back to the Other Place, demons die).

Meanwhile, Kitty Jones is secretly being awesome and has taken Bartimaeus's lessons from the last book to heart. She's searching for information about the enslaved demons to figure out how to free humanity from its cycle of magical tyranny, commoner revolt, rinse, repeat. We get great scenes between her and Bartimaeus as these two characters size each other up.

Woven throughout are scenes that finally illuminate Bartimaeus' deep friendship with the Egyptian boy, Ptolemy, which has been hinted at but never revealed in the other books.

This series is all about the characters: I want more scenes between Nathaniel and Bartimaeus, and Nathaniel and Kitty, and Bartimaeus and Kitty, and all three together. The way that each rubs up against the other is fascinating, and I am so relieved to see Nathaniel leave his terrible teens behind as he realizes the bigger picture and the horrible role he's been playing in the world so far. He's lost most of his annoying foppish tendencies, which is a shame since it was always fun to see Bartimaeus needle his master.

Storywise, the threads spun in the first two books all come together in an incredibly frightening and bloody climax (though I still find Gladstone's afrit from The Golem's Eye the creepiest thing ever). It's definitely not for readers on the younger end of YA. (For younger readers who like grim fantasy, start them with Suzanne Collins' Gregor the Overlander series instead and let them work their way up to Bartimaeus.)

I can't comment on the series without saying that the end broke my heart. I almost cried. I had hoped for an eleventh-hour rescue, and didn't believe what had happened until the last page forced me to. I loved Nathaniel/Bartimaeus/Kitty, and didn't want it to end that way for them, though I accept that there was no other way to end the story without it feeling like a cheat. Still, boo for making me care and then breaking my heart.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

How Books Can Open Your Mind

This is a lovely and passionate TED Talk from Lisa Bu, who lost her childhood dream but grew into the rich life of an active reader. She's a charismatic speaker, and I of course love her message, too.

The Golem's Eye

Rebel Kitty Jones and her group threaten young magician Nathaniel's rise to power, so he summons the quick-witted djinni Bartimaeus to take care of them - and defeat the unstoppable creature threatening London's magical treasures.

There are now three point-of view characters: we have the always-delightful demon Bartimaeus, the overly ambitious but clever Nathaniel (now known as John Mandrake), and the energetic hero, Kitty Jones. Stroud brings back all the magic mayhem of The Amulet of Samarkand and gives me exactly what I hoped for: a look into the alternate world he's created, where England's empire stretches across the world well into the modern era thanks to their greedy but powerful magicians.

Poor Nathaniel. I can't help but like him, though he does absolutely nothing right. Getting into the government (as John Mandrake) has worsened his character. His hunger for power and vengeful tendencies are only exacerbated once he enters the insular, back-stabbing society of high-level magicians. He continues to treat Bartimaeus badly, calling him "slave" and generally being a brat. His cleverness is his one redeeming quality - and even that only makes him worse as a person.

Bartimaeus is his usual snarky, shape-shifting self, outraged at being summoned from his comfy Other Place to serve as Nathaniel's gofer. Understandably, he's irritated by being forced to take orders from someone 4,986 years younger than himself and our favorite demon is still quicker to hide than risk harming his essence in a fight.

Kitty is the real hero of this book. I think Stroud realized he needed a wholly likable character for balance, since Bartimaeus and Nathaniel spend every scene with each other as antagonists. (And Nathaniel is such a toad in this book.*) Kitty is a commoner (non-magician) with an unusual gift who recognizes the injustice of the magical oligarchy and wants to gain rights for her fellow British citizens. She's great, and she's the perfect antidote to Nathaniel.

It's an increasingly dark world, full of casual violence and blatant injustice where might makes right. I loved it, and I can't wait to see what happens to these characters in Ptolemy's Gate, the final book in the series. For older readers who love His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman or Garth Nix's The Keys to the Kingdom series.

*Not literally. That wasn't a spoiler. Bartimaeus is more likely to be a literal toad in these books.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Crown Duel

Crown Duel (Crown & Court #1-2)Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Young Meliara, made a countess by her father's death, begins a war to defend her people from a greedy king - a war she cannot win.

Sigh. You can't go home again. I remember reading this book avidly as a teenager. I was initially attracted to it because of the cover: not only is the girl there beautiful, but she looks incredibly tough because of her black eye and a sword slung over one shoulder. And Meliara is tough, but she's a bit of a one-note character, hardly the equal of Katniss.

In fact, most parts of this book feel flat. The plotting of the war and the fantasy setting are barely sketched in, and some of the conversations are unbelievable. (The Hill Folk seem tacked-on instead of integral to the story, despite motivating a civil war.) Meliara is captured by a surprisingly capable marquis and spends most of the book trying to escape the clutches of her enemies. (Which leads to her spending a lot of time unconscious - I do remember that from my first reading.) Her antagonist, the sexy Marquis, is like a junior version of a Heyer romantic lead: a fop who uses his reputation to conceal his true cunning

That said, the story moves quickly and Meliara is a likable protagonist. In summary: a pleasant way to pass an afternoon but probably not a book to keep rereading into adulthood. Lesson learned.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Let's Pretend This Never Happened

Let's Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True MemoirLet's Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny  Lawson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jenny Lawson (also known as The Bloggess), recounts the stories from her life, beginning with her bizarre Texas childhood as the daughter of a taxidermist.

When not to read this book:
  • When your bus stop is coming up, because you'll probably miss it thanks to stories about roadkill squirrel handpuppets
  • When you have a mouthful of hot coffee, because you may lose it over the author's argument with her husband about the appropriateness of calling a graveyard "Resurrection Cemetary".
  • In a crowded Starbucks where people may look at you funny for laughing aloud to yourself
Lawson's sense of humor runs to the bizarre and frankly unbelievable - you won't be able to tell the true from the "mostly true" in this memoir. But facts are not why you read a blogger's memoir in the first place (though in her defense she does sometimes provide photographic proof). Her rambling style and recounting of unlikely conversations with her long-suffering husband will definitely hit your funnybone if you aren't one to be offended by f-bomb laden musings on the possibilities of a Harry Potter-esque vaginal scar. It's fun, but best in small doses.

There are also moments of real poignancy, as she tells the story of miscarriages, the sudden death of a well-loved pug (and the subsequent vulture invasion of its grave), and dealing with the effects of generalized anxiety disorder. She gets at real insights with outrageous flair:
  • "You should just accept who you are, flaws and all, because if you try to be someone you aren't, then eventually some turkey is going to shit all over your well-crafted facade, so you might as well save yourself the effort and enjoy your zombie books."
  • "'A friend is someone who knows where all your bodies are buried. Because they're the ones who helped you put them there.' And sometimes, if you're really lucky, they help you dig them back up."
  • "Because you are defined not by life's imperfect moments, but by your reaction to them. And because there is joy in embracing - rather than running from - the utter absurdity of life."
And pay special attention to the mouse declaiming with a skull on the front cover of the book. Apparently it's one of the taxidermied creatures in Lawson's increasingly odd collection. For readalikes with similar absurdist humor, check out Jen Lancaster's Bright Lights, Big Ass or Stephen Colbert's I am America (And So Can You!) (which on audiobook is read by Colbert himself).

Books Read in May

Little Brother
Little Brother by
Cory Doctorow
Shade's Children
Shade's Children
by Garth Nix
The Convenient Marriage
The Convenient Marriage
by Georgette Heyer
Eon (Eon, #1)
Eon by Alison Goodman

Coraline: The Graphic Novel
Coraline: The Graphic Novel
by Neil Gaiman and
P. Craig Russell
Eona (Eon, #2)
Eona by Alison Goodman
Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World's Most Dangerous Weapon
by Steve Sheinkin

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle
Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle
by Betty MacDonald
Leviathan Wakes (Expanse, #1)
Leviathan Wakes
by James S.A. Corey
Shadow and Bone (The Grisha, #1)
Shadow and Bone
Leigh Bardugo
Tell Us We're Home
Tell Us We're Home
by Marina Budhos
The Fault in Our Stars
The Fault in Our Stars
by John Green
The London Eye Mystery
The London Eye Mystery
by Siobhan Dowd
Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus
Rabid by Bill Wasik
and Monica Murphy
If Stones Could Speak: Unlocking the Secrets of Stonehenge
If Stones Could Speak
by Marc Aronson
Let's Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir
Let's Pretend This
Never Happened

by Jenny Lawson
Crown Duel (Crown & Court, #1)
Crown Duel by
Sherwood Smith
The Golem's Eye (Bartimaeus, #2)
The Golem's Eye
by Jonathan Stroud
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)
Is Everyone Hanging Out
 Without Me?

by Mindy Kaling
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
The Disreputable
 of Frankie

by E. Lockhart

The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World
The Botany of Desire
by Michael Pollan (dnf)

Monday, June 3, 2013

If Stones Could Speak

If Stones Could Speak: Unlocking the Secrets of StonehengeIf Stones Could Speak: Unlocking the Secrets of Stonehenge by Marc Aronson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What happens when one person's insight leads an archaeologist to see an ancient place like Stonehenge in a brand new way?

Spurred by the insights of an archaeologist named Ramilisonina from Madagascar, British archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson began searching the area around Stonehenge. This book is short and full of full-color photographs that show the ways in which the Riverside Project Team have excavated new sites that give insight into the ancient mysteries of Stonehenge.

The book reminded me of the many DK Eyewitness books I devoured as a kid (here's a list of the topics they cover), and I think it will do what author Marc Aronson intended: inspire the next generation of curious minds to look at old things in new ways and get excited about the potential of science and exploration.

"This is a book about questioning what others believe to be true, not accepting ideas just because famous people say they are right. I think knowledge is more like a wave than a switch. Only very rarely do we go from being totally wrong to totally right - as a light turns off and on. Instead, what we learned before allows us to move on to what we can see next. We can surf ahead, but there will always be another challenge, another crest, another next step." - p. 8

Marc Aronson has written many nonfiction books for young adult readers, including Ain't Nothing but a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry (with Scott Reynolds Nelson) and Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science (with Maria Budhos).

File:Stonehenge2007 07 30.jpg

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Books Bought in May

Nook Books:
Implied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams - I ran across his name after reading Leviathan Wakes. Hopefully I've discovered a new favorite scifi author!
The Crown Jewels by Walter Jon Williams (Maijstra #1)
This is Not a Game by Walter Jon Williams
Siege and Storm (pre-order) by Leigh Bardugo - I read the first book and immediately pre-ordered the second.
The Uninvited Guest by Sadie Jones - Manor house comedy of errors: the description contains the words "dysfunctional" and "eccentric", which make my ears perk.
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters - I kept hearing about this one, and Walters is from my hometown so naturally I must read it!
Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause - Klause inaugurated the YA vampire craze with her book The Silver Kiss, and this is it's natural antecedent: a werewolf novel. VOYA: 5Q, 4P. (Probably would have  gotten a perfect ten if it had been published in the 2000s instead of 1997.)
Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey - I hear it's dark and funny. I'm in.
Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl - It was recently made into a movie, and it sounds like one my sister and I would both enjoy.
The Dragon's Path by Daniel Abraham - Supposed to be an excellent epic fantasy first book, and it included an ARC of Leviathan Wakes!
Legion by Brandon Sanderson
The Emperor's Soul by Brandon Sanderson
The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson - Okay, so you can probably tell I'm a fan of Sanderson. Ever since I read his Mistborn trilogy with its amazing magic system, I've been hooked.
The Complete H.P. Lovecraft - All of his short stories, arranged in chronological order. Seems like a good thing to have on hand if I ever need to feel a nameless terror.
Ender's Shadow by Orson Scott Card - A parallel novel to Ender's Game that tells the story of Bean's beginnings as a homeless orphan. It's great to get into another character's head and see his differing perspective on the same events. Now I can get weed my physical copy of this book, too!

Physical Books:
The complete Borrowers series by Mary Norton! Boxed set! - Reading this the moment that diploma hits my hand this June.
Children of God by Mary Doria Russell (The Sparrow #2) - My teacher told me that it really does complete The Sparrow, so I figured I had to get it, though I've heard mixed reviews.
Appleseed by John Clute - The name struck me as familiar, and it's space opera, so I bought it.
The Animal Family by Randall Jarrell - Total impulse buy. I was up for a fairy tale-esque story "decorated" by Maurice Sendak.
April Lady by Georgette Heyer - You should see the all-pink ridiculously silly cover. Looking forward to reading this on the bus.
Stormy Weather by Carl Hiaasen - Everyone keeps telling me he's funny, and the setup for this book sounds like it. Except oddly, since it's set in Florida part of me expects it to be like Key Largo. I will probably have to revise that impression at some point...
House of Abraham by Stephen Berry - A nonfiction book about Mary Todd Lincoln's family during the Civil War. When Lincoln talked about "a house divided," he definitely meant his own.
The Nutmeg of Consolation by Patrick O'Brian
The Wine-Dark Sea by Patrick O'Brian
The Yellow Admiral by Patrick O'Brian
The Hundred Days by Patrick O'Brian - Books 14, 16, 18, and 19 of the Aubrey/Maturin series. I want to reread the first few books and power through the rest this summer. They were all on sale! (I should be buying these in e-versions, but I can't resist a bargain.)