Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Hot Six

Hot Six (Stephanie Plum, #6)Hot Six by Janet Evanovich
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When her mentor is suspected of killing a crime lord's son, bounty hunter Stephanie Plum's not so sure her friend is innocent - but even less sure she wants to bring him in.

Stephanie knows better than to tangle with Ranger. First, he makes her pulse race a little too fast. Second, he's a ghost with no known address and an uncanny habit of getting past the locks on her apartment door. He's the expert, and she's still a bumbling beginner. But the wolves are sniffing after his trail, and it's Stephanie they're watching.

With a dopey dog in tow and Grandma Mazur snoring on her couch, Stephanie takes on the Mob with moxy to spare. Add to her woes a serious lack of sleep and sex, and it's just another day in the life of a Jersey-born bounty hunter.

Stephanie's still not quite sure how to work a gun, but she's getting a little better at fugitive apprehension. She even manages to make a respectable takedown, though with plenty of humorous flailing. Her luck with cars is still abysmal, and it's fun to watch her go toe-to-toe with the intimidating Ranger. A cliffhanger from High Five is resolved and replaced by another that will make ardent fans eager to see what's next in Seven Up.

"Nothing is ever simple with you. Men blow themselves up. Cars get flattened by garbage trucks. I've been in full-scale invasions that have been less harrowing than meeting you for coffee." - 240

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

High Five

High Five (Stephanie Plum, #5)High Five by Janet Evanovich
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

With no bail jumpers on the horizon, Stephanie Plum's side gigs prove more dangerous than her normal work: tracking down her missing uncle, doing odd jobs for the mysterious and sexy Ranger, and desperately avoiding an old enemy.

Stephanie is back to being on the outs with Morelli, whose views on marriage differ from her own. She also continues her losing streak with cars, inadvertently introduces Grandma Mazur to the joy of a stun gun, and rooms with a little person. Not to mention a familiar psychopath leaving heavy breathing on her answering machine. Her plate's full, even if her fridge, wallet, and bed remain stubbornly empty.

The pattern of Evanovich is starting to become more clear, but it's still a fun outing in the life of a cupcake bounty hunter. Some jokes at the expense of a new side character gave me pause: so far in the series we've had a large black woman, a female impersonator, and now a little person added to provide flamboyant background color. It's in questionable taste. Keep it classy, Evanovich.

"'Almost everybody I know has died,' Grandma said. 'Bunch of wimps.'"

"It exploded and caught fire and then the garbage truck fell over on it." (Just another day in the life of serial car murderer Stephanie Plum.)

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom

The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom (The League of Princes, #1)The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Four princes who hate to be called charming start a quest to win fame and honor - and possibly save a kingdom or two.

You know their stories, but it's unlikely that you've heard the names Liam, Duncan, Gustav and Frederic. Probably because you've heard of Briar Rose, Snow White, Rapunzel, and Cinderella instead. Those bards have a lot to answer for - and one irritated witch is determined to make them pay.

The Princes Charming
It all begins when Ella, instead of living her happily ever after with fashion and safety-obsessed Prince Charming (Frederic), goes on a quest to put the excitement back in her sheltered life. Frederic follows soon after, and runs into Prince Charming (Gustav of Rapunzel's story, a hulking warrior with a chip on his shoulder as a result of being the youngest of 16 daring brothers), Prince Charming (Liam, of Sleeping Beauty's story, the perfect hero but a little too in love with the adulation of his subjects), and of course, Prince Charming (Duncan, a sweet weirdo who found his perfect woman in Snow White).

This ill-assembled team stumbles through misadventure, slowly realizing the witch's dastardly schemes and springing to the rescue. Eventually. Going several directions at once. They run into beet-eating trolls, fierce giants, dragons, and one very naughty Bandit King. Along their road they are helped by super-accomplished dwarves, assorted princesses, and a bit of dumb luck. (Very dumb.)

It's an adventure story sure to appeal to fans of fractured fairy tales with plenty of tongue-in-cheek action, and is also the first in The League of Princes novels. Anyone who loves William Goldman's The Princess Bride is sure to be charmed; it may also appeal to fans of the funny Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones.

It's beautifully illustrated by artist Todd Harris, who gives appealing faces to our heroic men and women, plus assorted creatures and elements of their fairy tale world.

"All the princes had their issues - Frederic was easily intimidated, Liam's ego could stand to be reined in a bit, and Gustav could use some impulse control - but Duncan was flat-out strange." - 83

"On still another road, a green-haired man wobbled by on peppermint-stick stilts; a fiery-plumed bird of paradise perched on his shoulder. But he's not in this story, so don't pay any attention to him." - 212

Friday, July 26, 2013

Any Duchess Will Do

Any Duchess Will Do (Spindle Cove, #4)Any Duchess Will Do by Tessa Dare
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When the Duke of Halford's overbearing mother forces him to pick a bride at "Spinster Cove," Griffin bribes a lowly barmaid, Pauline, to deliberately fail at her public debut.

Griffin makes his mother a deal: if she can make the woman of his choice the toast of London in one week, he will happily marry her. If she fails, Griffin would be free to continue his bachelor existence. But of course, he gets more than he bargains for in Pauline. She may be a barmaid, but she's every bit as intelligent and fiery as he is, and she agrees to play along for the sake of securing her own future. Griffin finds himself falling for her, but a secret loss threatens to keep them apart. Longing looks, tests of character, misunderstandings, and a bit of tupping ensue, but all for the best. It's a twist on the Pygmalion story that's not annoyingly sexist, but still a bit far-fetched.

The setting is London, and the era is unspecific late Regency or early Victorian. The characters have a few anachronistic attitudes and ways of speaking, but this book is much less about the scenery and setting: it's really about watching two people fall in love. There isn't much action or mystery here.

I don't care much for the protective male trope that creeps into Any Duchess a few times, and some of the sentimental moments about orphans and babies isn't quite to my taste, but everything else was a delight and made me understand why historical romance's popularity doesn't wane.

This is the fourth in the Spindle Cove series, which features fiery spinsters and the dissolute rakes who love them. A few more high-quality Regency romances you may want to try are Eileen Dryer's Barely a Lady  (Drake's Rakes series) or The Duchess War (Brothers Sinister series) by Courtney Milan. For those new to the genre who only want to dip a toe in, you would be wise to start with the grand dame of Regency romance, Georgette Heyer. I suggest The Grand Sophy for a first outing.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Four to Score

Four to Score (Stephanie Plum, #4)Four to Score by Janet Evanovich
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the most satisfying Plum adventure yet, lingerie buyer-turned-bounty-hunter Stephanie Plum is on the trail of a missing bail jumper and some funny money.

Stephanie is at her usual car-wrecking best here, trying to juggle the demands of her dangerous job and her unresolved love life. She's getting more comfortable with skip tracing, but still keeps her gun unloaded in the cookie jar.

Morelli, Mr. Hot and Cold, is hot again and has Stephanie in knots trying to decide what she really wants from him. Her newest sidekick is a 6'4", puzzle-solving drag queen named Sally Sweet, who fits in nicely with the former hooker Lula and Grandma Mazur (aka Dirty Harry). There's also the return of her home-wrecking nemesis, Joyce Barnhardt, who has never been more inconvenient.

For readalikes, see my review of One for the Money.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


Drew Bean is a sidekick-in-training with an absentee Superhero - and now that a deadly villain is bent on revenge, Drew and his friends must step up to save not only the good citizens of Justicia, but themselves.

Drew's powers of enhanced sight, smell, hearing and taste are not exactly combat-ready, which leaves him in plenty of awkward positions. For example: danging above a swimming pool filled with acid beside his best friend, waiting in vain for his assigned superhero to jump into action. Unfortunately, Drew's Super is past his prime and more interested in wallowing than heroics.

There are also the problems of crushing on his best friend Jenna, who happens to moonlight as the powerful Silver Lynx, jealousy over a new rival, surprise math tests, and lying to his parents about his after-school activities with his "environmental" club, H.E.R.O. He wants to do something important with his abilities, but often finds himself feeling helpless and frustrated instead - a position many high school kids can relate to.

The story is fun but predictable for those familiar with the conventions of the superhero genre, but will definitely appeal to comic book readers who want to read about superheroes in other formats. For similar stories of boy wonders struggling with unique powers (or a lack thereof), check out these series:
Evil Genius (Genius #1) by Catherine Jinks - Cadel is studying for his World Domination degree at a most unusual - and dangerous - boarding school full of future villains.
The Hero Revealed (The Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Boy) by William Boniface (middle grade readers) - The only non-powered boy in a town full of supers, Ordinary Boy uses his wits to solve puzzles and defeat crime.

There's a thorough list of superhero fiction for all ages on Goodreads, and several recent movies that mutate the superhuman genre: Sky High (Disney), a live-action movie about the son of two superheroes whose lackluster talents destine him for sidekick work; and The Incredibles (Pixar) about a family of retired supers who face a new threat that draws them from hiding.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Hard Times

Hard TimesHard Times by Charles Dickens
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Louisa Gradgrind's hard-nosed education, driven by her factory owner father's ideals, fails her and those around her in one of Dicken's shortest works.

Louisa Gradgrind was brought up in the industrial grime of Coketown, trained in nothing but facts. To Mr. Gradgrind and his friends, "wonder" is a dirty word. Alienated from everyone around her, Louisa's education takes a spiritual toll, leaving her world-weary and nihilistic.

Louisa makes a terrible marriage to a man 30 years her senior; she then finds herself the intended prey of a bored aristocrat and the focus of a malicious widow's spying. Her worthless brother, Thomas "The Whelp" Gradgrind, sponges off of her, taking advantage of her love for him.

The innocent around the malformed Gradgrinds suffer, too - innocents like "Hard Times" himself Stephen Blackpool, an honest factory worker: "It is said that every life has its roses and thorns; there seemed, however, to have been a misadventure or mistake in Stephen's case, whereby somebody else had become possessed of his roses, and he had become possessed of the same somebody else's thorns in addition to his own."

It may be hard times all around, but Dickens' comic touches and tear-jerking moments make this a virtuoso performance by the master of character and observation. Good may not entirely win out, but bad certainly gets its comeuppance. It's especially gratifying to see the fruit reaped by Mrs. Sparsit's nosiness and Mr. Bounderby's constant boasting. The story isn't as rewarding or as exciting as Great Expectations or A Christmas Carol, but fans of Dickens should definitely read it. (I wouldn't recommend it as a starting point for his works, though.)

Most Dickens characters easily lend themselves to being nicknamed, they are so distinct and often outrageous, so here's my list:
Thomas "The Whelp" Gradgrind - "It was altogether unaccountable that a young gentleman whose imagination had been strangled in his cradle, should be still inconvenienced by its ghost in the form of grovelling sensualities; but such a monster, beyond all doubt, was Tom."
Josiah "Blowhard" Bounderby - A self-made man with "a moral infection of clap-trap in him": he's the original humblebragger as he boasts about his beginnings in a gutter
Mrs. Sparsit the Sneak - A dependent widow, the proud possessor of a Roman nose that she likes to stick in everyone else's business
Stephen "Hard Luck" Blackpool - Perpetually down on his luck, but honest and good-hearted
Sissy "Saintly" Jupe - A young woman the Gradgrinds take in after she is abandoned by her father, who is a circus performer
James "Superfluous Man" Harthouse - a Byron wannabe who tries to gain the married Louisa's affections

Dickens uses the lives of these characters to illustrate his own ideas about hot-button issues of his day: education, laissez-faire capitalism (there were almost no protections for workers, who were often children), divorce (so expensive it was only achievable for upper-classes, and almost impossible for women to gain), the rise of labor unions (considered criminal organizations until 1867), rapid industrialization, industrial pollution, and the cold-blooded political philosophy of Utilitarianism. Anyone who dismisses the Victorian era in Britain as uninteresting and prudish only has to read through that list to realize that their problems are our problems.

You can download a digital copy of Hard Times for free at Project Gutenberg, along with the rest of Dickens' works. A great next choice for those looking for another perspective on the mill towns of the north of England (with much more romance), try Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South (free here). For more background on the man and his writings, try Claire Tomalin's excellent biography, Charles Dickens: A Life.

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!” - 1

"He had not much hair. One might have fancied he had talked it off; and that what was left, all standing up in disorder, was in that condition from being constantly blown about by his windy boastfulness." - 56

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Philosophy Book

A brief, readable introduction to the thinkers and ideas that have shaped the world.

The profiles are organized by date, bookended by brief intros to each historical era; each person gets 1-3 pages describing major ideas and an abbreviated biography. There are also sidebars with quotations, charts outlining a thinker's logic, "see also" page references to related thinkers in the book, and boxes that put each person into his or her contextual background (telling us who influenced whom).

This book provides a quick and dirty overview of philosophy for those who want nodding acquaintance with the big names and ideas, or those who want to brush up. The ideas are highly simplified but clear enough to be understood, and there are lists of key works for those who want to delve deeper. I like how the book made connections between related thinkers, showing the way knowledge is built and refined by successive generations. The usual suspects from Western philosophy are most represented, but thinkers from all over the world, from various religious and philosophical traditions, are also included.

Provocative statements like "Philosophy and religion are not incompatible", "Imagination decides everything", "Mind has no gender", and "Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom" grabbed my curiosity and led me to read at random. You could definitely absorb a few pages and sit wondering for a long time - which is exactly what an introduction to philosophy should help you do.

For more armchair philosophizing, you could try out some thought experiments from The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten by Julian Baggani or read A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton for a different overview of a fascinating subject.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Boyfriend List

The Boyfriend List: 15 Guys, 11 Shrink Appointments, 4 Ceramic Frogs and Me, Ruby Oliver (Ruby Oliver, #1)The Boyfriend List: 15 Guys, 11 Shrink Appointments, 4 Ceramic Frogs and Me, Ruby Oliver by E. Lockhart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In ten days, high schooler Ruby Oliver went from being popular to a social leper; her shrink and a list of fifteen former boyfriends help her begin to understand how exactly she got into this mess.

Ruby tells the story of how in one week she lost her boyfriend, her best friend, and suffered public humiliation of the worst kind. She tells the story of her life and likes to her poncho-wearing shrink, all while trying to navigate the treacherous waters at Tate, her private prep school.

The structure of this novel is sophisticated, all taking place in flashbacks as Ruby unravels her own history and is challenged by her shrink to reevaluate what she thinks she knows about herself and the people around her.

Lockhart has said that she was inspired by Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, structuring her novel around the list instead of around music. Ruby is funny and smart, and her experiences with high school angst ring true as she tries to figure out more than just boys, but also people in general.

E. Lockhart is the author of one of my all-time favorite YA novels: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, and Ruby Oliver didn't disappoint - though she's not quite as unique a character as Frankie. This is the first book of the Ruby Oliver series, so there's plenty more to read for Ruby Oliver fans. You might also enjoy How to Take the Ex Out of Ex-Boyfriend by Janette Rallison, or try Meg Cabot's works.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Pet Project

A little girl wants a pet, and her parents tell her to go do some scientific research to find out which pet is best.

The story takes place all in rhyme, clever and cute as the budding scientist earnestly makes field observations and takes notes of her misadventures with animals that don't make great pets after all:

Upon closer inspection
I smelled dairy air
as the cow dropped a pie at my feet.

She visits a farm, zoo, the woods, and a pet store in her quest, with poems and observations of each type of animal - most of which prove more troublesome than they're worth. My favorite illustration was of the poem "Bunnies", showing rabbits dressed like soldiers plotting in their warren. A note of warning for parents with sensitive kids: the truth about why the pet shop, which also sells snakes, keeps so many mice may be hard news.

The whole book wraps with a perfect twist ending for this scientifically-minded girl. Shel Silverstein fans will appreciate the humor of the poetry. Wheeler has many other books of poetry for children, including Spinster Goose: Twisted Rhymes for Naughty Children. The bright and bold illustrations are by Zachariah OHora, who has his own books, Stop Snoring, Bernard! and No Fits, Nilson! 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013


Riveted (Iron Seas, #3)Riveted by Meljean Brook
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Airship engineer Annika is searching the world for her exiled sister, but when she discovers that cyborg scientist David Kentewess plans to survey Iceland, she fears he could put everyone in her hidden village of women in danger.

The book starts out very slowly and because the intial action takes place on an airship in flight we barely glimpse the dangerous world of the Iron Seas series, instead learning about it second-hand. (Maybe I'm just not all that jazzed by that staple of steampunk: airships. Clipper ships, on the other hand....) The Mongolian Horde controls much of the world through mind control, and the rest of the world is patrolled by megalodons, zombies, repressive governments, and airships. There's a lot going on.

David and Annika are remarkably clear-headed as they experience the initial stirrings of attraction to each other. I found Annika's sometimes awkward bluntness endearing. David is shy about his half-mechanical nature (he lost an eye, and several limbs to a terrible disaster in his childhood) but he's not crippled or obsessively self-doubting. They're very sensible, politically-correct modern protagonists and seem just a tiny bit dull because of it. (There's also a bit of not-so-subtle preaching that felt like an authorial intrusion.) There is a sense of comfort in their relationship, however, especially in their unconditional acceptance of each other. It's a love story for grownups.

Then we finally get off the damn airship and move into Iceland. There the action gets more interesting as the plot picks up and starts to follow in the venerable footsteps of Jules Verne. Enter some wickedly cool mechanical "trolls" that make Annika into a kind of ultra-Ripley. I won't say much about the plot, because it happens so late in the story it feels spoilery to me. Four words to pique your curiosity: mechanical whale, volcano, and megalomaniac.
Nice suit.
In closing, I really wish those robot dogs had worked out. They would have been awesome addition to the story, especially since Iceland is crawling with feral dogs. It seems like the dogs were a Chekhov's gun that never went off. I like a little more landscape and world-building details in my steampunk. Brook takes her time building the characters instead, so if that's what you look for in a love story, this is the book for you.

If you love Riveted, go back and try The Iron Duke, the first in the series, for a better look at Brook's complex steampunk world. You could also check out Bec McMaster's steampunk vampire fantasy Kiss of Steel (London Steampunk #1), or Kate Cross' Heart of Brass (Clockwork Assassins #1), which has assassins and brain-washing aplenty. If you adore fantasy steampunk romance and you haven't yet read Soulless, what are you waiting for?! Get it yesterday! (And while you're at it, pick up the entire Parasol Protectorate series!)

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Three to Get Deadly

Three to Get Deadly (Stephanie Plum, #3)Three to Get Deadly by Janet Evanovich
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Stephanie Plum's been handed her most difficult bail jumper yet: beloved candyman Uncle Mo, who everyone loves but no one really knows; a man whose disappearance coincides with bodies piling up along Stephanie's path.

With irrepressible former hooker Lula riding along as bounty-hunter-in-training, Stephanie has her hands full. Uncle Mo's reputation is so high she find doors slammed in her face and dead ends wherever she looks - not to mention all the gossip filtering through the phone lines to her mother. Stephanie's still pretty new to bounty hunting, and her inexperience shows. So she's relying more than ever on the mysterious Ranger, suspected superhero, to back her up and keep her in shape for a job she's not sure she wants anymore.

Not only that, but Morelli's been acting oddly around her - when he bothers to come around, that is. Formerly hot and heavy, his coolness leaves Stephanie suspicious that he's gotten a girlfriend who doesn't carry pepper spray for a living.
Evanovich has a knack for funny descriptions and outrageous scenarios, but I hope our bold heroine shows herself a little more capable in the future. Calling Morelli every time she gets into trouble has its limits. She also may want to consider moving - her apartment is a waystation for every lowlife she angers. How can she sleep at night?!

For my readalike recommendations, check out my review of One for the Money.

"Fred looked to be about three hundred years old. Gravity had pulled the skin from the top of his head down to his neck, and Fred had tucked it into his shirt collar." - p. 262

Monday, July 15, 2013

Two for the Dough

Bounty hunter Stephanie Plum's new job is taking her places she never expected - to strangers' funerals with Grandma Mazur, out onto a rusty fire escape, and under sexy Joe Morelli.

Ruining cars and making enemies as she goes, Stephanie is hunting for a Trenton boy who shot his buddy and skipped his court date. The case seemed simple enough until Morelli started taking undue interest in it - and bodies started piling up with missing parts. Feisty Grandma Mazur is more than a bit player in this sequel to One for the Money that manages to be just as charming and funny as the original.

For other series that combine strong female leads with mystery and action, try A is for Alibi by Sue Grafton, or the Carlotta Carlyle books by Linda Barnes (number one is A Trouble of Fools).

Friday, July 12, 2013

Writing Reviews for Readers' Advisory

Writing Reviews for Readers' AdvisoryWriting Reviews for Readers' Advisory by Brad Hooper
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An expert reviewer shares the basics of book reviewing for librarians, using examples and lessons gained from his years of experience writing and editing for Booklist.

This is a small but useful book for any librarian who is new to the art of reviewing. Hooper boils the process down to answering two main questions: What is it about? How good is it? and offers rules of thumb, advice on avoiding pitfalls (like overwriting and negativity), as well as sample reviews.

Joyce Saricks contributed one especially useful chapter on evaluating and reviewing audiobooks. She packs a lot of information into a few short pages, and it's a good introduction to the topic. You may also consider visiting the AudioFile magazine online. The ALA also has a list of resources about audiobooks.

Hooper's word-count rules of thumb:
annotation: 25-50 words
short review: 175 words
full-length review: 500 words

Hooper includes a couple of appendixes: one on writing annotations, another on reviewers he especially enjoys, including John Updike's collected essays Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism and Eudora Welty's A Writer's Eye: Collected Book Reviews. He also suggests Nona Balakian's collected writings: Critical Encounters: Literary Views and Reviews, 1953-1977.

"Good reviews are good for several reasons, and even in short space they reveal a lot of things only about the book under review but also the reviewer. Even a short review is personal to some degree. Be mindful, then, that you are giving something of yourself away in a review!" - p. 54

"Just as dissection of the human body is an absolutely necessary requisite in a medical education, dissection of books or audiobooks is absolutely necessary for an education in reviewing. As indicated previously, it will not be the same reading or listening experience as before. You cannot simply sit back and enjoy. You must constantly analyze, forever dissecting the book or audiobook and identifying its component parts." - p. 56

"Annotations are not easily written; selecting the exact words and deciding which peculiar quality is most prominent and the most 'citable' - and thus characterizes the book most directly and meaningfully - is nearly an art. You cannot learn an art form in an evening." - 82 (Appendix A)

Thursday, July 11, 2013

I'm Down

I'm DownI'm Down by Mishna Wolff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mishna Wolff's father is white - but he acts like he's black, and he wants his awkward daughter to be just as cool as he is.

Mishna's ill-matched parents divorced when she was young, and her father took custody of her and her younger sister, Anora. The 6'4" former athlete loves his kids but is hopelessly immature, neglecting them to play dominoes with his buddies and making Mishna take over the hard work of looking after her sister. He's chronically unemployed, which often leaves their house without food or phone - though his ambitious renovation project does leave them with an interesting front door arrangement.

Mishna tells the story of her struggles to fit in, first with the kids in her mostly black Seattle neighborhood, and then with the wealthy white kids at a private school she is sent to later. The initial story of her summer at "Government Sponsored Charity Club", where she learns the fine art of "cappin'", or trading outrageous insults, is the highlight of the book.

Throughout the story her desire to please everyone puts her in painful situations. Her father doesn't understand her desire to educate herself to leave behind the poverty they live in - he thinks it's disrespectful for a child to know more than an adult, and he frequently accuses Mishna of selfishness. Then he remarries, and the dynamic worsens with the addition of Mishna's stepmother Yvonne, whose idea of femininity, respect, and duty are occasionally appalling.

In the end, it's clear that this book isn't primarily about race: it's about class. The biggest differences between the people in Mishna's neighborhood and the people at her school are because of money and education, not race. It's a funny and a touching story that doesn't preach.

I listened to an audiobook version read by Wolff, whose slight lisp and way of talking as though she has a mouth full of dental work is oddly endearing, as is the way she delivers her father's speeches, which frequently begin with an impatient "Mishna". (Here's an author interview at NPR so you can hear what I mean.) Her voice work reminded me strongly of David Sedaris' audio versions of his various memoirs, particularly Me Talk Pretty One Day. Her humor is less outrageous than Sedaris', and more clued into the complexity of family dynamics, but she uses a unique voice to bring a lot of humor to her experiences.

For another funny memoir that touches on father/daughter relationships, check out Let's Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson. And for more awkward childhoods, humorously retold, try Stephanie Klein's Moose: A Memoir of Fat Camp.

FYI: The cover showing Mishna with an epic fro, which initially drew me to the book, is sadly PhotoShopped. Still a funny picture.

The Raven Boys

UPDATE: If you want an autographed copy of The Dream Thieves, buy it here before September. Her other books are available there, too!

The Raven Boys (The Raven Cycle, #1)The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Psychic's daughter Blue has always known that when she kisses her true love he will die, but so far she's avoided temptation - until she finds herself entangled with the "raven boys" whose quest may bring more than one prophecy to pass.

The so-called "raven boys" attend an elite boarding school where the power brokers of America send their scions. Except their leader, Gansey, is unhappy with his charmed life, and wants to prove that he is worth more than his trust fund. He ropes his friends - and eventually Blue - into a quest for a mythical king whose resting place may lie along lines of spiritual power in the heart of Blue's hometown.

Blue lives in a house full of women, and she is the only non-psychic among them. Instead, her gift is to focus the power of others. Similarly, she acts as a catalyst for the lives of the raven boys. Her presence makes things happen quickly. Blue is drawn deeper into their tight-knit group by her knowledge that in one year, Gansey will die.

Stiefvater proves herself skilled at orchestrating scenes with multiple characters, each person hiding and revealing themselves in turn. She can also create with moments that are truly chilling: even with glimpses into the future we receive, the course of the next two books is anyone's guess. (The second book of The Raven Cycle, The Dream Thieves, comes out this fall and it'll be high on my list!) The last line of the book made me go "What?!" and wish for the next novel, immediately. It's definitely a book that needs to be understood in context of its companion novels.

Stiefvater is the author of other popular series, including the Shiver trilogy and The Scorpio Races. Now's a good time for fans of paranormal YA. For your next read until The Raven Boys' sequel, I suggest Libba Bray's A Great and Terrible Beauty for the perfect combination of paranormal and boarding school elements.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Days of Blood and Starlight

Days of Blood & Starlight (Daughter of Smoke & Bone #2)Days of Blood & Starlight by Laini Taylor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Once upon a time, a girl lived in a sandcastle, making monsters to send through a hole in the sky.”

Seraphim reign triumphant over their defeated chimera enemies, and former lovers Karou and Akiva, separated by war and betrayal, see no hope for restoring peace to their fractured world.

With her memory restored, Karou begins helping Thiago, bulk up the tiny remnants of his chimera army using the resurrection magic she learned at Brimstone's elbow. She doesn't see a better way to help her people, but she feels continually threatened by Thiago's brutal nature and their past history (like how he executed her - it's hard to get over that).

Akiva returns to his brother and sister, Hazael and Liraz. His new job is to track down the free chimera and enslave them, and he does everything he can to spare the chimera, regretting his deadly mistake. Meanwhile in Prague, the world is angel-crazy and Zuzana and Mik search for their missing friend Karou.

How to describe the lost love between Akiva and Karou in this desperately romantic series? Here's an excerpt that sums it up perfectly:

“Yeah? Okay," she said, staring up into the stars. "Let's see. You know how, at the end of Romeo and Juliet, Juliet wakes up in the crypt and Romeo's already dead? He thought she was dead so he killed himself right next to her?"
"Yeah. That was awesome." A pause, followed by "Ow," suggested elbow punctuation on the part of Mik.
Karou ignored it. "Well, imagine if she woke up and he was still alive, but..." She swallowed, waiting out a tremor in her voice. "But he had killed her whole family. And burned her city. And killed and enslaved her people.”

Yep. Lots of angst. But Karou seems more human in this book than the last, and there's a credible third to form a potential love triangle, especially since the lovers are estranged (but yearning. So much yearning). Thiago was never in the running, after all, but now - no spoilers.

If you haven't read Daughter of Smoke and Bone, you'll find yourself lost in Karou's world, so definitely start at the beginning. The final book, Dreams of Gods and Monsters, is scheduled for April 2014 and I know I'm not the only one who finds that a crazy long time to know what happens to Karou and Akiva. So in the meantime, check out the unique Grisha series by Leigh Bardugo, starting with Shadow and Bone. The titles may be similar, but there's no chance of mixing these series up once you've read them.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Maps and Legends

Maps and LegendsMaps and Legends by Michael Chabon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon writes about genres, comics, fan fiction, tricksters, writing, maps, and golems in this engaging collection of essays.

I'm a sucker for books about books, books about reading, books about writing. So it's no surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed this collection of Chabon's accessible nonfiction essays. Along the way he stops to argue with the scorn heaped on genre fiction, read some comic books, discuss ghost stories and Sherlock Holmes, and talk about a controversial article on Yiddish that was the germ of his magical realist novel The Yiddish Policemen's Union (see the NYT article for more details).

I especially liked "On Daemons & Dust", where Chabon discusses Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy with great insight (it's a trilogy I have mixed feelings about and was happy to read a thoughtful analysis of - I acknowledge the greatness of its inventions, particularly daemons and the alethiometer, but the third book was venomously anti-Christian and spoiled my enjoyment of the series). I was also drawn in by the final essay "Golems I Have Known, or, Why My Elder Son's Middle Name is Napoleon" where Chabon mixes truth and fiction and ties the themes of the book together.

One tiny quibble: this is the librarian in me speaking, but I am a little sad there's no index to help me re-find some of the many authors and books he mentions in passing.

Chabon's love of literature shines through clearly, and those who want a good introduction to his work should check out his 2001 Pulitzer novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay or his most recent book, Telegraph Avenue. For more great essays on reading and literature, I highly recommend Francis Spufford's The Child That Books Built.


"A mind is not blown, in spite of whatever Hollywood seems to teach, merely by action sequences, things exploding, thrilling planetscapes, wild bursts of speed. Those are all good things; but a mind is blown when something that you always feared but knew to be impossible turns out to be true; when the world turns out to be far vaster, far more marvelous or malevolent than you ever dreamed; when you get proof that everything in connected to everything else, that everything you know is wrong, that you are both the center of the universe and a tiny speck sailing of its nethermost edge." - 94

"The mass synthesis, marketing, and distribution of versions and simulacra of an artificial past, perfected over the last thirty years or so, has ruined the reputation and driven a fatal stake through the heart of nostalgia. Those of us who cannot make it from one end of the street to another without being momentarily upended by some fragment of outmoded typography, curve of chrome fender, or whiff of lavender oil from the pate of a semi-retired neighbor are compelled by the disrepute into which nostalgia has fallen to mourn secretly the passing of a million marvelous quotidian things." - 135

Monday, July 8, 2013

Shades of Grey

Shades of Grey (Shades of Grey, #1)Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

" Team sports are mandatory in order to build character. Character is there to give purpose to team sports." - p. 255

Sent to Chromatacia's backwaters to count chairs, ambitious Eddie Russett slowly uncovers the truth about his hue-obsessed society.

Where to begin? The world of this book is as endlessly complex and clever as Fforde's surreal Thursday Next series. Chromatacia's inhabitants are obsessed with color: the color you are able to see (red, blue, green, etc.) determines your rank in the Colortocracy. Night is a terrifying emptiness, since no one can see in the dark. Artificial color production drives village life. Everyone is expected to appreciate the "simple pleasures of relentless toil" and devote their lives to supporting the community, accepting their genetically determined places in the hierarchy.

Then there are the interminable Rules of Munsell, which must be obeyed to the letter - no matter how absurd or nit-picky they seem to be. (One notable lapse in the Rules has led to a severe spoon shortage, which makes the utensils more precious than gold.) Every year there are Leapbacks - erasures of technology and knowledge, designed to simplify society. (Much like the Ministry of Truth's Newspeak in Orwell's 1984, and  obviously named to recall Mao's Great Leap Forward) In short, it's an entire society run like an English boarding school: rigorous dress codes, mealtimes, required activities, strict standards of behavior, and punishments for infractions.

Eddie Russett knows how to navigate the Rules to his advantage. He's slightly engaged to a wealthy Oxblood from the highest echelons of the Colortocracy, and things look good for his future. But his habit of questioning tradition gets him shipped out to the boonies where he runs across a colorblind Grey named Jane, who has a charmingly retroussé nose...and Russett unwittingly begins to unravel the mysteries at the dark heart of his seemingly placid society.

Fforde excels at high-concept stories with fun characters and plenty of wit. His humor and writing style remind me of Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog. There are also echoes of Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, and Chromatacia echoes the bizarre real-life dystopia of North Korea in Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick. The humor may get dark, but it never feels cynical thanks to the likable narrator. I can't believe I have to wait until 2015 for the sequel, Painting by Numbers. That's totally beige.

"It began with my father not wanting to see the Last Rabbit and ended with my being eaten by a carnivorous plant. It wasn't really what I'd planned for myself - I'd hoped to marry in the Oxbloods and join their dynastic string empire." - p. 1

Friday, July 5, 2013


VilletteVillette by Charlotte Brontë
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Englishwoman Lucy Snow strikes out for France and becomes a teacher at a boarding school; but her lonely life is soon interrupted by friendships with a handsome doctor and a mercurial professor.

It took me ages to get through Villette, and even as I rounded the final turn I worried that Charlotte Brontë was planning on breaking my heart. Lucy Snow reminds me of the Little Matchgirl, always looking in at the warmth of other lives with barely anything to keep herself going. It's a compelling character study, not only of Lucy but of the people around her.

One character tells Lucy, cruelly and with mixed accuracy: "I suppose you are nobody's daughter, since you took care of little children when you first came to Villette: you have no relations; you can't call yourself young at twenty-three; you have no attractive accomplishments - no beauty. As to admirers, you hardly know what they are; you can't even talk on the subject [...] I believe you never were in love, and never will be: you don't know the feeling, and so much the better, for though you might have your own heart broken, no living heart will you ever break."

Lucy Snow's life is difficult and lonely, but she is a coolly self-possessed young woman and doesn't give in to self-pity. In an attempt to gain a better life and secure her independence after the death of her employer, she leaves her country behind and goes Villette, a town in the heart of Catholic France (she is a devout Protestant, doesn't speak French, and has no money or friends). Though she finds work teaching English, she is desperately isolated and falls into a deep spiral of depression that is only broken when she strikes up a friendship with a handsome English doctor.

Brontë shows off her knack for funny, insightful social commentary, skewering Victorian hypocrisy and weak art. Her description of a sensual painting of Cleopatra is priceless, and an amusing scene follows between Lucy and an acid-tongued Frenchman who commands her not to look. He directs her instead to a series of insipid paintings that supposedly depict the stages of a woman's life, while he himself is free to admire the Rubenesque queen at his leisure.

This tyrannical Frenchman is M. Paul Emmanuel - a fellow schoolteacher of mercurial temperament who may berate her (and everyone else, for that matter), but soon shows that he has depths of goodness that offset his Napoleonic failings. Lucy wonders at his contradictory nature: "Never was a better little man, in some points, than M. Paul: never, in others, a more waspish little despot." But Lucy and M. Paul are equally spirited, and their battles are funny and occasionally poignant as their friendship deepens.

Not to say it's a perfect novel, but it is more complex and sophisticated than Jane Eyre (while sharing similar Gothic elements). There are a few flaws: a long opening that seems utterly irrelevant and casts initial doubt on who the main character is, with a delayed payoff; our thoroughly English heroine is incredibly anti-Catholic and anti-French (many of her observations about the people around her echo old British propaganda); and you'll definitely need an annotated version or to have Google Translate at hand for a lot of the important exchanges between Lucy and M. Paul, which take place in French.

The ending is far too abrupt. I felt cheated after experiencing Lucy's suffering and only getting a tiny look at her joy. So Brontë did break my heart a little, but she could have done much worse, and the experience of this novel paid me back in full. Her genius and feminism is present throughout Villette even more than Jane Eyre (though it's easier to love the latter, I'll admit).

Brontë has a few other lesser-known works, but I think the best follow-up to Villette is Shirley, her most feminist novel. Or you could go on to Elizabeth Gaskell's romantic North and South.

  • "Several very well executed and complacent-looking fat women struck me as by no means the goddesses they appeared to consider themselves."
  • "Really that little man was dreadful: a mere sprite of caprice and ubiquity: one never knew either his whim or his whereabout."
  • "No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness. What does such advice mean? Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould, and tilled with manure."
  • "Of course I did not blame myself for suffering: I thank God I had a truer sense of justice than to fall into any imbecile extravagance of self-accusation; and as to blaming others for silence, in my reason I well knew them blameless, and in my heart acknowledged them so: but it was a rough and heavy road to travel, and I longed for better days."
  • "If life be a war, it seemed my destiny to conduct it single-handed."
  • "He was born victor, as some are born vanquished."

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Wish List

The Wish ListThe Wish List by Eoin Colfer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Dying isn't the end for Meg Finn: her soul is perfectly balanced between good and evil, so she is sent back to Ireland with one last chance to make it through the pearly gates.

Meg Finn was an ordinary Irish girl until an unfortunate accident with a shot gun, a propane tank, and a pitbull ended her life. She gets sent on to the afterlife and finds a few surprises: heaven and hell are real, and while blue auras go up, red goes down. But Meg's aura is....purple? Back she goes for one last chance to right some wrongs: Meg helps a crotchety and lonely old man rekindle his lost love, reclaim missed opportunities and settle old grudges, all while dodging Satan's minions.

This novel is quippy and light-hearted in spite of the fact that its heroine dies in the first few pages. Most of the fun is in the premise, and watching Satan's technologically challenged servants try to track down Meg before she gets away. Not brilliant, but certainly entertaining.

Fans of the Artemis Fowl series will find more of the Colfer's signature style here. Fans who have outgrown the teenage mastermind might try Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride or go a step further to the clever Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett (which would appeal to anyone who liked the Beelzebub/St. Peter dynamic).

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

One for the Money

One For The Money (Stephanie Plum, #1)One For The Money by Janet Evanovich
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lingerie buyer Stephanie Plum is down on her luck and out of work until she goes into business for herself - as a bounty hunter.

This is exactly the kind of book I wanted to read this summer: breezy and fast, with sexy, scary, and funny all mixed in. Stephanie is a total wise-ass and Jersey all the way through. She takes to skip tracing like a duck to jello, but she doesn't quit just because she's humiliated, threatened, or out of her depth. Nope. She's far too broke for that.

Plus, she has a score to settle with an old flame who's skipped out and is on the run trying to prove he's innocent of murder. Joe Morelli may be telling the truth, but he's worth $10,000 to Stephanie and that can buy a lot of beer and pizza.

Now I understand why people were so pissed at the movie - they took Evanovich's sensible though inexperienced heroine and made her a total reckless ditz. They made the men around her condescending jackasses, and scaled back the terrifying psychopath targeting Plum, making both the danger and her triumph feel slight. They attempted to maintain the tone with her voiceovers, but instead put in gems like "His car was yellow." When we're looking right at it.

Yes, I know what color this car is.
There are only two good reasons for watching the film instead of reading the book:

(Okay, so they cast a straight-up Irishman as a Morelli, and Daniel Sujata is a little too much of a clean-cut Adonis for Ranger. Oh well. But both of these men need to be in more movies.)

If you like this book, you're in luck because there are only about a zillion more in the Plum series, handily numbered for your convenience. Once you're done counting, try the alphabet starting with A is for Alibi by Sue Grafton, or the Carlotta Carlyle books by Linda Barnes (number one is A Trouble of Fools).

  • "The clock on the dash told me I was seven minutes late, and the urge to scream told me I was home."
  • "I shot that sucker right in the gumpy."
  • "Suppose I lay down on the pavement and you run over me a few times with my own car...just for old times."
  • "My body is not designed to run. My body was designed to sit in an expensive car and drive."