Wednesday, February 22, 2017

1632

1632
by Eric Flint
BAEN Books, 2001, 597 pages, Science Fiction, Historical Fiction. 

A small West Virginia town is mysteriously uprooted and displaced in time and place, finding themselves in the middle of the Thirty Years War. The citizens of Grantville do their best to bring American values and superior rate of fire to 17th century Germany. 

Flint skillfully depicts the horrors of a war torn Europe while juxtaposing it with a character study of small town America. The West Virginians come from a United States somewhat different than our own; published seven months before 9/11, 1632's characters bear less resemblance to an independent Appalachian community and more to citizens of metropolitan areas like New York City. Flint's one concession to life in a small town is the ubiquity of firearms, though this seems parodiable in its extremity. The real strength of the novel comes from the depth of knowledge and detail of 17th century German life. Though Flint's characterization of the Americans is simplistic (the minor antagonist of the main character, his metropolitan father-in-law, is laughably one dimensional), the Europeans are diverse and well-developed. If a bit long winded at times, 1632 is a great read for enthusiasts of historical and alternative fiction. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Emperor of Thorns

Emperor of Thorns
By Mark Lawrence
Ace Books, 2013. 434 pages. Fantasy

Jorg is back for a third and final volume, and the question is… will he finally ascend the Empire Throne? Defeating the Prince of Arrow has earned him seven kingdoms, but when it comes time for Congression, that’s only seven votes out of a hundred. An Emperor must win a majority of votes, and we all know that diplomacy is not Jorg’s strong suit. Sure, he may have mastered the ancient technologies of the Builders, but that’s not going to convince a room of noblemen who hate his guts to play nice. Not to mention the fact that everyone is distracted from the business of emperor-making by the fact that the Dead King and his army of necromancers are practically breaking down the door. Is this where Jorg’s quest for ultimate power ends, or will he continue to cheat, lie, and murder his way to the top?


This book was just as great as the first two, and provided me with the perfectly satisfactory conclusion I was looking for. If anyone read my review for King of Thorns, you’ll remember that my one complaint was that Lawrence jumped between four different timelines and it was hard to keep them all straight. This book was a little better—it had three timelines instead of four, and two of the timelines converged toward the end. It was still a little irritating, but I didn’t struggle near as much to remember what was going on. The focus of this book is definitely more on Jorg’s character than in the previous volumes, and I found it interesting to watch as he developed a little self-awareness before his final bid for victory. That being said, there’s definitely more than enough swordplay, torture, and assassination to keep things interesting. All around an excellent trilogy that I would hardily recommend to anyone charmed by a classic anti-hero.

LLK

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Caraval

Caraval
by Stephanie Garber
Flatiron Books, 2017.407. YA Fiction

Scarlett and her younger sister live on a remote island with their abusive and controlling father. Now Scarlett’s father has arranged a marriage for her with a duke, and she feels like it is her only hope to protect herself and her sister from her father. But it also seems that her dreams of attending the games of Caraval will soon be over. This year Scarlett’s invitation arrives, and with the help of a sailor Scarlett and her sister escape to the island where the games will take place. As soon as they arrive though Tella Scarlett’s sister gets kidnapped, and the terms of the game are whoever finds her first is the winner. Scarlett has to remember it is only a performance, but she must find her sister before the five nights of the game are over her sister may disappear forever.

I really enjoyed listening to this book. My most favorite aspect of the book was the growth that Scarlett went through. Because of her abuse she was initially very timid and unwilling to take control of her future, and over the course of her story she begins to learn how to be willing to try different possibilities even though the outcome may not be the most ideal. I also really enjoyed the dynamics between the characters. I specifically liked the complexity of the relationship between Scarlett and her sister Tella. As a sister she loved her and would do anything for her, but there were also those points where Scarlett was ready to throttle Tella because of her willingness to plunge into everything head first. Overall a very compelling YA read.

MH

Into the Storm

Into the Storm
by Taylor Anderson
Roc, 2009, 416 pages, Historical Fiction, Sci-fi. 

On the run from the vicious and inexorable Japanese advance in Pacific, the crews of two outdated destroyers find themselves in a strange parallel earth where the catlike Lemurians fight the reptilian Grik for the right to existence itself. Captain Matthew Reddy and the crew of the USS Walker have to decide how to proceed in a war where their ships are the most advanced technology in the world. 

The first in an ongoing series, Into the Storm introduces a diverse cast of characters and explores how this rough group of sailors and soldiers would adapt to something so incredible world altering. Though a Japanese commander also transported to this new world becomes a recurring antagonist, Anderson takes pains to demonstrate the variety of morals among both the Americans and the Japanese, though the alien species almost exclusively delineates into mammals good, reptiles evil. As the series progresses, both the world exposed to the reader and the plot expand in complexity and scope. Anderson writes spectacular naval and land battle scenes, which are only enhanced by the characters discussions and efforts to integrate advanced technology into primitive society, as well as recreate advanced manufacturing. If that sounds dry in description, rest assured that Anderson makes it dramatic and compelling. I would highly recommend this series to anyone who enjoys either science fiction or World War era historical fiction. 

JMS

You Bet Your Garden Guide to Growing Great Tomatoes

You Bet Your Garden Guide to Growing Great Tomatoes

by Mike McGrath
Fox Chapel Publishing, 2012. 111 pgs. Nonfiction

From seed to harvest this book gives clear, detailed instructions on every step from choosing your tomato variety and preparing your soil to natural pest control and harvesting your crop. McGrath focuses on heirloom tomato varieties and organic gardening methods, but he also gives usable information about hybrids and commercial fertilizers. Throughout the book he also describes common pitfalls experienced by would-be tomato growers, what causes them, and how to avoid them.

This book was one of the most entertaining non-fiction books I have ever read! The writing style is engaging and laugh-out-loud humorous, making it an incredibly enjoyable read. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to grow tomatoes from the beginner to the experienced gardener, and even to anyone who has ever had a passing interest in gardening and enjoys a good laugh.

ER

Kingdom of Ash and Briars

Cover image for Kingdom of ash and briars
Kingdom of Ash and Briars
by Hannah West
Holiday House, 2016, 350 pages, Young Adult Fiction

Bristal, a sixteen-year-old kitchen maid, lands in a fairy tale gone wrong when she discovers she has elicromancer magic in her blood. Elicromancers are an ancient breed of immortal people, but only two remain in Nissera after a bloody civil war. Bristal joins the ranks of elicromancers Brack and Tamarice without knowing that one of them has a dark secret . . . Tamarice is plotting a quest to overthrow the realm's nobility and take charge herself. Together, Bristal and Brack must guard the three kingdoms of Nissera against Tamarice's black elicromancy. There are cursed princesses to protect, royal alliances to forge and fierce monsters to battle--all with the hope of preserving peace.

From the above description, it might come as a surprise to find that West pulls heavily from fairy tales such as Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Mulan to tell this story. However, this book is its own tale and it is not focused on finding a happily ever after. Instead, West deals with classic fantasy themes like the battle between dark and light and the idea that “with great power comes great responsibility.” As a lover of fantasy and fairy tale retellings, this book had a lot of the elements I look for in a good book, along with giving me a brand new story to enjoy.

MB

Highly Illogical Behavior

Cover image for Highly illogical behavior
Highly Illogical Behavior
by John Corey Whaley
Dial Books, 2016, 249 pages, Young Adult Fiction

Sixteen-year-old Solomon is agoraphobic. He hasn't left the house in three years, which is fine by him.

Ambitious Lisa desperately wants to get into the second-best psychology program for college (she's being realistic). But how can she prove she deserves a spot there?

Solomon is the answer.

Determined to "fix" Sol, Lisa thrusts herself into his life, sitting through Star Trek marathons with him and introducing him to her charming boyfriend Clark. Soon, all three teens are far closer than they thought they'd be, and when their walls fall down, their friendships threaten to collapse as well.

This is a great coming-of-age tale about accepting people for who they are. John Corey Whaley’s skill at crafting a novel is fully evident here. He could have easily painted Lisa as a villain (her reasons for befriending Solomon are horrible), but by telling the story from the perspectives of both Solomon and Lisa, in alternating chapters, everyone becomes more relatable. This book is also one of those rare young adult novels with characters who are funny and clever without the dialogue seeming forced. Fans of books like All the Bright Places; Me and Earl and the Dying Girl; Everything, Everything; and the writings of Matthew Quick and Rainbow Rowell will enjoy this book.

MB

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Case Against Sugar

The Case Against Sugar
by Gary Taubes
Knopf, 2016. 384 pgs. Nonfiction

In the name of heart health, federal guidelines have urged Americans away from saturated fat for decades. Claiming that a calorie is a calorie, regardless of its source, experts have argued that the obesity and modern diseases are the result of overeating and insufficient exercise. Now, investigative journalist Gary Taubes is taking on those claims and arguing that processed sugar, far more than saturated fat and even overeating, is the simplest explanation for our health woes. New research reveals that obesity, heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, even cancer – any of the so-called Western diseases – have insulin resistance caused by processed sugar consumption at their root.

The Case Against Sugar is not a diet book or even a health book, really. Instead, it is a journalistic investigation into where nutrition research went wrong. Taubes traces claims about sugar’s harmlessness to their earliest sources and points out how a hypothesis with limited support became accepted nutrition fact through repetition by successive generations of food scientists. He also reveals the conflicts of interest that have almost always tainted studies into the health effects of sugar, showing how the sugar industry has funded much of the existing research. He bookends The Case Against Sugar with information about how sugar and insulin resistance affect the body and how cutting out processed sugar improves health far more dramatically and rapidly than reducing calories or saturated fat intake. Though his writing can be a little dry at times (listening to the audiobook helps), the information Taubes provides is fascinating and sometimes startling. It’s a book worth reading for anyone who enjoys reading about nutrition, health, science, or the food industry.

SR

11/22/63

11/22/63
By Stephen King
Scribner, 2011. 846 pages. Sci-Fi

Meet Jake Epping, ordinary high school English teacher. Meet Al Templeton, owner of the local diner and creator the infamous Fat Burger. Their plan? To go back in time and stop the JFK assassination. When the two discover a mysterious time-travel portal at the back of Al’s diner that opens onto 1958, it seems like a chance to become the heroes who saved history. The only problem is that the assassination doesn’t take place until 1963, and so whoever makes the jump will have to wait five years to stop the crime. Jake reluctantly agrees to be the one to go back, but soon finds that life follows you wherever—or whenever—you go.

This was the first Stephen King book I’ve ever read and I definitely thoroughly enjoyed it. It alternates between dramatic action scenes and much slower descriptions of the mundane life Jake builds for himself in “the land of ago.” Both were compelling, though in very different ways. Though the slow parts drag a little bit in places (as you might expect from an 800-page novel), they do a great job developing the characters so that when you get to the action scenes you’re really invested. I loved Jake’s romantic interest and all of his friends and students, and so when protecting JFK started to threaten those relationships I was genuinely distraught. I listened to the audiobook on this one and I thought the narrator was excellent. He really brought Jake Epping to life for me and made the whole book fly by.

LLK

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Serpent King

The Serpent King
by Jeff Zentner
Crown Books for Young Readers, 2016. 372 pages. Young Adult

When you live in a small town set in the deep south named after the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, even being slightly different isn’t going to go down well. Dillard, Lydia, and Travis are best friends entering their senior year of high school. Dill is living under the shadow of his charismatic father, a Pentecostal snake-handler who was recently incarcerated for child porn on his computer. He yearns for more in life but is fearful of losing his friends. He also feels compelled to honor his domineering mother’s wishes, who has suggested he drop out of school to help pay for his father’s legal fees.

Candid and offbeat Lydia comes from a wealthier family and has found success as a fashion blogger which she hopes will catapult her to New York where she can attend NYU. While Lydia is determined to realize her dreams, she is unaware of the cost this is taking on her friendships.

Travis, large of body and gentle of soul, is happy to work at the local lumberyard and lose himself in a Jordan-esque fantasy series called Bloodfall. He has even met a girl online through a Bloodfall fan site but struggles under his father’s emotional and physical abuse. As they each grapple with these concerns, a shocking act of violence sends their lives into a tailspin.

With an openness and grace, Zentner explores difficult issues teens face such as struggling under the failings of our parents, adjusting to life after high school and the fear of the unknown, and how to strive for lasting friendship. Fans of Rainbow Rowell and John Green should definitely consider picking up this touching debut.

AJ

Monday, February 13, 2017

Three Dark Crowns

Three Dark Crowns
by Kendare Blake
Harperteen, 2016. 398 pages. Young Adult

On the magical island of Fennbirn, a set of girl triplets is born to the Queen every generation. Each one has a different magical ability. The sisters are separated and raised on different parts of the island by factions who share their ability. Mirabella is a powerful elementalist who can manipulate fire, water, and air. While, Katherine who can make and ingest poisons and Arsinoe, a naturalist who can control plants and animals have manifested only weak versions of their gifts.

Now nearing their 16th year, the sisters are in the final days of preparing for a bitter fight to the death. It is the custom for only one to survive to become Queen Crowned. With Mirabella’s formidable magical skills, it seems obvious who will win, but there are other intricate machinations and deceitful plots at play.

Blake has created a twisting dark fantasy full of complex characters with mysterious motivations. The vicious game played through the lives of each queen is intensely fascinating to watch unfold. While this isn’t an exact read-alike, I think fans of Sarah Maas’s Throne of Glass series could find much to like here.

AJ

Where Am I Now?

Where Am I Now? True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame
by Mara Wilson
Penguin Books, 2016. 272 pgs. Biography

You might not know Mara Wilson’s name, but you’d probably recognize her face. She spent her early years as one of the most popular child stars of the 1990s, with credits including Matilda, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Miracle on 34th Street. For years, she was everywhere, and then suddenly she disappeared from Hollywood. As the title suggests, Where Am I Now? describes Wilson’s difficult transition away from stardom and into adulthood. It also includes wonderful behind-the-scenes information about her time on movie sets and her relationships with costars.

If you enjoy celebrity memoirs, Where Am I Now? is worth the read. Wilson is a clever writer (as evidenced by her Twitter account), and, in general, her life has been an interesting one. She included a few high school stories that I found uninteresting and a little off-putting because they seemed like typical, petty teenage experiences. She writes beautifully, however, about her mother’s death during the production of Matilda, her own experiences with OCD and anxiety, and the pain she felt when Hollywood rejected her in adolescence based on appearance. Overall, this funny, candid, and poignant book is an enjoyable read that can be finished in just a few hours.

SR

Friday, February 10, 2017

Lab Girl

Lab Girl
by Hope Jahren
Alfred A. Knopf, 2016. 290 pgs. Biography

Hope Jahren is an acclaimed botanist.  From her early childhood she loved the world of science and worked hard to build a lab she could call her own.  On her way she becomes lab partners and best friends with Bill, a wounded but brilliant researcher who joins Hope in her adventures and discoveries.  In Lab Girl she describes her battle to establish herself in a male dominated academic field, find continual funding for her research through extremely competitive grants and contracts, and overcome episodes of mania and depression due to struggles with mental illness.

I think my favorite parts of Jahren's insightful memoir were the chapters about the plants she loves so much.  These chapters were interspersed with chapters following the author's life through decisions, triumphs, and disappointments.  I gained an entirely new perspective on the inner life of trees.  I wanted to go right out and plant a big oak in a nearby park.  Lab Girl is a fantastic memoir for anyone looking for inspiration and new insights to life in our beautiful world.

CG

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Bleed, Blister, Puke, and Purge

Bleed, Blister, Puke, and Purge: The Dirty Secrets Behind Early American Medicine
By J. Marin Younker
Zest Books, 2016. 110 pgs. Young Adult Nonfiction

When the first settlers came to America, educated doctors were few and far between, so medical practices were quite barbaric by today’s standards. This book details the changing landscape of American medicine from the 15th to 20th centuries. From education (or lack thereof), common practices and schools of thought, to the introduction of anesthesia and why cutting edge practices were ignored despite overwhelming evidence that such practices saved lives (like sanitizing instruments and washing hands). Sorry President Garfield, they just wouldn’t listen!

This was a fascinating read! The intended audience for this book is teens, and I would also recommend it to anyone who is simply curious about early American medicine. It’s easily readable for the layman and is full of fascinating facts and real situations. For example, I didn’t know that George Washington, when taken ill with a sore throat, had 80% of his blood removed because the doctors of the day thought that would cure him. Spoiler: He died. I also learned that many soldiers during the Civil War died from starvation as they lay wounded on the battlefield because the ambulance service was only just beginning and couldn’t get to everyone fast enough. This may be a little gruesome and morbid (lots of puke, puss, and blood), but it was really informative and I’m glad I read it. I learned a lot, and am very grateful for modern medicine!

ACS

The Singles Game

The Singles Game
by Lauren Weisberger
Simon & Schuster, 2016. 341 pages. Fiction.

Charlie is a consistent tennis star until she suffers a horrible injury at Wimbledon, with all the world watching. Miraculously she makes a fast and complete recovery, and she really changes things to reshape herself to be a champion. She hires a new coach, typically a men's only coach, who ruthlessly trains her to be the best. This coach insists on changes on and off the court that ultimately question Charlie's desire to continue life as a pro tennis player.

As a tennis fan, and a chick-lit fiction fan, this book was a good choice. It was easy to get into and I liked the personable and relatable Charlie character. I started to really feel for her when her choices on and off the court started to negatively effect her self esteem and her family. It was a quick, yet satisfying ending as she straightens her life out again. Weisberger writes with a witty, fast paced and engaging style but her inclusion of bad language seems gratuitous. I liked this book enough that I wanted to read some of her other books too!

LP

Bless Me, Ultima

Bless Me, Ultima
By Rudolfo A. Anaya
Warner Books, (1973) 1994. 250 pages. Fiction.

This widely acclaimed and award winning novel for Chicano literature, tells of a young boy in New Mexico in the 1940s as he experiences the ups and downs of growing up. Antonio bonds with Ultima, a curandera (native traditional healer) as she lives with his struggling family. Ultima takes Antonio on a spiritual journey as he learns about the grittier aspects of life.  Antonio must negotiate his parents differing backgrounds, religion. life and death, healing powers, post WWII realities, and good and evil, ultimately arriving at who he wants to become. Antonio credits the shaping of life to this kind old woman who taught him and cared for him when his world was a turbulent and confusing mess.

This book is a classic that sinks into your soul and changes you- I highly recommend it for all mature teens and adults. Anaya writes with imaginative description and visceral clarity about the realities of life so this novel is not a thematically easy or relaxing read. I enjoyed the insights into New Mexican life during this time period and how the different worlds colliding must have been hard for a young person to grow up in. Coming of age stories always resonate with me and since Antonio must grapple with so many big issues, I found myself going on the same spiritual journey with him as I realized my own feelings on the issues.

Author read alike page found here.

LP


Monday, January 30, 2017

Victoria

Victoria
By Daisy Goodwin
St. Martin's Press, 2016. 404 pages. Historical Fiction

This novel is based on Queen Victoria's first few years after becoming queen, as she leaves the controlling grip of her mother and her mother's advisor Conroy.  She must not only forge a new identity for herself but do it with little preparation for her role as queen.  Because of this, she leans heavily on her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, but the lines of advisor and someone far more meaningful begin to blur.  As she gets older, Victoria must grapple with expectations put upon her by her household, her government, and her people, while still trying to remain true to herself and her own desires.  The climactic decision of this book is whether or not she will marry her cousin, Prince Albert, and although we know from history what happened, Goodwin manages to make this debate suspenseful enough that the reader almost holds their breath to see how it all turns out.

While I enjoyed this book, I was a little frustrated with the portrayal of Victoria herself.  Though she had much to grapple with and needed to be strong in many ways, she most often came across as a very self-interested character.  Readers will want to cheer for Victoria as she faces each new challenge, but some might find it hard to like her at times.  In contrast, almost every other character in the book is complex, sympathetic,and interesting.  I also hoped to see more of Prince Albert, but his role in the book is much smaller in comparison to Lord Melbourne.  If you're interested in more of a historical fiction character study than a romance, this is a good choice.

BHG

Dark Matter

Dark Matter
By Blake Crouch
Crown Publishers, 2016. 342 pgs. Sci-fi

Jason Dessen is happy with his life. He has a secure job teaching at a small community college and a wonderful wife and son to go home to.  A part of him wonders if he could have had more or been more, but he rarely regrets any of his choices.
Then one night he is kidnapped, knocked out,  and wakes to very different life.  In his new life he has accomplished the ultimate professional success but seems to lack fulfillment in any other aspect of his existence.  Desperate to return to the life he loved, Jason will go up against impossible obstacles and face the worst in himself.
This is a fast paced thriller that will keep you reading through the night.  The premise is fascinating but required me to suspend disbelief a bit, which I usually don’t mind doing for a good story.  And this, is a good story!

CG

Diary of a Tokyo Teen

Diary of a Tokyo Teen
By Christine Mari Inzer
Tuttle Publishing, 2016. 127 pgs. Graphic Novel

When just fifteen, Christine travels to Japan alone to spend the summer visiting family and reconnecting with the country she was born in. Through illustrated journal entries, this travelogue written and illustrated by Christine, takes us through her experiences with planes, trains, food, geisha, sight-seeing, and the various people she encounters. Each page or two feels like its own journal entry, sometimes with photographs included along with the illustrations.

This was a charming and fast read. It doesn’t read like a continuous narrative, but more like disjointed, humorous journal entries. Most pages have pretty simple illustrations with descriptive text, explaining either what’s going on or why something stood out to the author. It was fun to see Tokyo through the eyes of this young Japanese-American. I feel like this was probably a very memorable way for Christine to capture her trip, and it inspires me to do something similar on my own future vacations abroad.

ACS

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Tea Planter's Wife

The Tea Planter's Wife
by Dinah Jeffries
Crown, 2016. 432 pgs. Fiction.

Gwendolyn Hooper, a naïve, young Englishwoman, follows her new husband to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where he owns a tea plantation. The newlyweds love each other, but distance arises between them as soon as Gwen arrives. Mystery surrounds the death of Laurence’s first wife and their young son, and Gwen quickly becomes wary of her husband’s close relationship with a local socialite. One evening, jealous and drunk, Gwen leaves a family party and stumbles to bed. Nine months later, she gives birth, in Laurence’s absence, to a white boy and a mixed race girl. Shocked, confused, and terrified, she makes a decision that leaves her heartbroken and mired in secrecy.

The Tea Planter’s Wife definitely held my curiosity. As the novel progressed, I found myself making wild guesses about how the plot would work out, and I ended up being wrong on basically every count. It was difficult to discern who the “good guys” and villains were in this tale, which made the twists and turns more compelling. Jeffries takes on some difficult topics – race relations, colonialism, rape, infidelity, secrecy and trust, mental illness, and more, and I largely think she succeeds. She does an especially lovely job of painting the scene with her evocative, atmospheric descriptions of 1920s Ceylon. Her writing can be a little dense at times, but the plot pulled me in, in spite of (or maybe because of) the melodrama.

SR

Bookshop on the Corner

Bookshop on the Corner
By Jenny Colgan
Harper Collins, 2016. 368 pgs. Fiction

Nina Redmond loves finding the perfect book for a reader. She is a librarian at a small branch library when the library system decides to close her branch. Nina isn't really interested in working at the main library where the emphasis seems to be more on computers and cafes than books. She can't imagine not being able to put books in the hands of people on a daily basis.

She begins dreaming about what she does want to do if she's not going to be a librarian anymore. She knows that she wants to continue recommending books and decides to open up a mobile bookshop. Nina finds an advertisement for a van that looks perfect for her needs, so one weekend she takes a trip from her home in the city to the rolling hills of  rural Scotland. The van turns out to be much larger than it looks and the locals at the pub scoff at her ability to make this plan work. However after a lot of grit and determination, Nina's bookshop becomes a reality. Along the way she discovers how strong and tenacious she really is and finds love along the way.

I really loved this book! I enjoyed the descriptions of the Scottish countryside and seeing Nina's personal growth throughout the book. This was such a cozy read, particularly for someone who is bookish. I'm anxious now to read other books by Jenny Colgan.

AMM

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

This Adventure Ends

Cover image for This adventure ends
This Adventure Ends
by Emma Mills
Henry Holt and Co, 2016, 308 pages, Young Adult Fiction

Sloane isn't expecting to fall in with a group of friends when she moves from New York to Florida--especially not a group of friends so intense, so layered with private tragedies and secret codes, and so all-consuming. Yet that's exactly what happens. Sloane becomes closest to Vera, a social-media star who lights up any room, and Gabe, Vera's twin brother and the most serious person Sloane has ever met. When a beloved painting by the twins' late mother goes missing, Sloane takes on the responsibility of tracking it down, a journey that crosses state lines--and pulls her ever deeper into the twins' lives.

Emma Mills’ first book, First and Then, is a modern take on Jane Austen that was widely praised. In her sophomore novel, Mills keeps the light, witty banter Jane Austen is known for. This made the book a nice palette cleanser since I’d been reading a lot of books about people with capital I issues. I appreciated that This Adventure Ends was fun and quirky and light, but all of the characters dealt with real issues, too. Also, this book asks the important question: What if Nicholas Sparks got writer’s block and ended up finding his way back by writing Vampire Academy fanfiction? How could you not like a book like that?

MB 

Still Life with Tornado

Cover image for Still life with tornado
Still Life with Tornado
by A.S. King
Dutton, 2016, 295 pages, Young Adult Fiction

Sixteen-year-old Sarah thinks she's having an existential crisis. For one thing, she can no longer draw, and art is her life. For another, she keeps running into past and future versions of herself as she wanders the urban ruins of Philadelphia. As Sarah tries to figure out what’s happening to her, she becomes more aware of other things she’s been repressing from her memory. Specifically, Sarah becomes more aware of the tornado that is her family; the tornado that six years ago sent her once-beloved older brother flying across the country for a reason she can't quite recall.

This is my first book by A.S. King, and I can see why she’s so highly praised. In the hands of a less skillful writer, the appearance of past and future Sarahs could seem like a gimmick. King uses them to give Sarah the courage she needs to confront the problems she and her family haven’t been dealing with. I also appreciated that there are many different layers to Sarah’s problems, and that Sarah has to rely on others, as well as on herself, in order to conquer her demons. Although the resolution of the book felt a little rushed to me, I think King did a great job in slowly revealing different elements of the story to keep my interest throughout.

I listened to the audio book, and it was excellently read.  Those who are sensitive to strong language should know that there's a side character who swears a lot, but it makes sense in context and is not gratuitous.

MB

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Glittering Court

The Glittering Court
by Richelle Mead
Razorbill, 2016. 400 pages. Young Adult

Regency romance meets wild frontier life in this mashup of fantasy and historical fiction. Lady Elizabeth Witmore, Countess of Rothford is the eligible daughter of one of Osfrid’s (A.K.A Victorian England) most elite families. Unfortunately, the family is now almost penniless meaning that Lady Elizabeth must be wedded off to a wealthy husband. When Elizabeth’s grandmother arranges a marriage to her humorless distant cousin whose mother is meddlesome and controlling, Elizabeth longs for a way out.

Before the marriage is to take place, Elizabeth is forced to let go of all her maids. Becoming desperate, Elizabeth is intrigued when handsome Cedric Thorn arrives at her home to recruit her maid, Adalaide, for the Glittering Court. The Glittering Court enrolls beautiful young women to be trained as ladies. They are then taken across the Sunset Sea to the newly discovered lands of Adoria and auctioned off as brides to the highest bidders. Elizabeth has always longed for adventure, so when she discovers that Ada has signed a contract but does not want to go to Adoria, Elizabeth offers to take her place.

Now going by her maid’s name, Ada, it’s not long before Cedric discovers her subterfuge. Cedric agrees to keep her secret but has a dangerous one of his own. Soon, Ada is on her way to the frontier lands of Adoria where she must eventually choose to marry for money or love.

Though fantasy is listed as one of the genres, the only thing that really makes this fantasy is that the places are made up. I would say this book will appeal more to fans of historical fiction and fans of strong female characters. That being said, I think this book could have benefited from better developed, more likeable characters. I hesitate to be too critical because, overall, I did like the book. It just needed to be developed a bit more.

AJ

GURPS For Dummies

Cover image for GURPS for dummiesGURPS for Dummies
by Adam Griffith
For Dummies, 2006. 410 pages. Nonfiction.
If you are new to role playing games or if you are curious to try, GURPS for Dummies is a great help for creating characters, playing, and running a game. GURPS as a system is designed to be as flexible as possible, facilitating any game that players can imagine. It does this through a consistent and balanced set of what essentially constitutes the physics of the world, which players use to create characters and story lines. Because GURPS can be very math heavy in world creation, the For Dummies book is helpful to both new and experienced players who are looking to get the most of out the game.

Consistent with the For Dummies brand, GURPS takes a very conversational tone, taking pains to be simple without being condescending. I really appreciated the top ten lists (especially for the advantages section) because they offer great advice on a variety of play styles. The biggest downside is that it doesn't replace the Basic Set manual (itself a 200 page tome); it merely offers suggestions and explanations for rules. I would recommend GURPS to anyone who would like some help jumping into this great hobby or who is interested in learning more about table-top role playing in general.

JMS

All Is Not Forgotten

All Is Not Forgotten
By Wendy Walker
St. Martin's Press, 2016. 310 pgs. Fiction.

The attack and rape of young Jenny Kramer tears a small town apart.  Immediately following the attack, Jenny’s shocked parents agree to have a controversial drug administered to their unconscious daughter that is meant to keep her from ever remembering the events of that night. However, as months pass, Jenny falls apart, unable to cope with her inability to recall what was done to her.
Jenny is sent to a local therapist who fortunately has experience treating patients dealing with the results of this “forgetting treatment”.  Slowly he and Jenny work to recall those horrible moments so that she can begin to heal, but the secrets that rise to the surface spread far beyond that night in the woods and many lives are shattered as a result.
This book is filled with mature themes and situations.  It is certainly not for everyone.  However, it is also an expertly written mystery with a unique viewpoint.  I think I’d recommend it to fans of Gone Girl, though All Is Not Forgotten has a great deal more heart and much more relatable characters.

CG

Saturday, January 21, 2017

A Matter of Magic

A Matter of Magic 

by Patricia C. Wrede

New York: Orb, 2010. 448 pgs, YA Fiction

This book is a combination of two stories, set in Regency England. When a stranger offers Kim money to break into a traveling magician’s wagon, she doesn’t ask any questions. But then she gets caught and discovers the magic is not just a sleight of hand. To make things worse he wants her to come a long on his journey and be his apprentice. Kim gets caught up in the world of wizardry and learns more than she ever thought she would.

This is one of my favorite stories. Kim is a very relatable character who grows throughout the course of the two books in this series. Some of my favorite scenes in the book are when she reverts to her street cant while navigating through proper society. I love the side characters in this story just as much as I love the main characters because of the diversity of their personalities. Mrs. Lowe whom you meet in the second book is beautifully annoying, while Renee D’Auber is elegant and forward thinking. I also like the author’s take on magic in this particular series. It is fascinating how they use other languages to stabilize the spells they cast throughout the books.

MH

A Spy’s Devotion

A Spy’s Devotion

by Melanie Dickerson

Waterfall press, 2016. 314 pgs, Fiction

Nicholas Langdon came home from war injured in hopes of recovery and also to fulfill a promise to a fellow soldier to deliver an encrypted journal. He attends a ball at the Willherns one of the most powerful families in England, where he meets their ward Julia Grey. After the ball when he tries to deliver the journal he is mugged and the journal is stolen. When suspicions then point to the guardians of Miss Julia Grey he must find a way to get more information without endangering the woman he is beginning to fall in love with.

I enjoyed this story. It is more of a romance than a mystery, espionage sort of story, but it was fun to read. I don’t know that I would have fit in to society way back when, and it makes me grateful that I can have a job and take care of myself as opposed to having to climb the social ladder by marrying the richest guy who came along. I enjoyed Julia’s character because I think she is a good representation of what someone of an orphan class would struggle with during the time period. She is not lowly enough to be a servant, but she is at the mercy of her guardians to find a “suitable” match. There were not many opportunities for women at the time and there was no way to realistically balance standing up for yourself and fitting in with the norms of society, the ultimate catch-22.

MH

King of Thorns

King of Thorns
By Mark Lawrence
Ace Books, 2012. 449 pages. Fantasy

Revenge is sweet. Jorg has not only killed his uncle for the crimes he committed, but has taken control of his lands, naming himself King of the Renar Highlands. King is a good place to start, but if Jorg still wants to unite the Broken Empire beneath him he has a lot of work to do. Unfortunately, there’s another contender for the imperial throne: the charming, good-hearted Orrin of Arrow. Nobles flock to support him, soldiers rally to his cause, and every soothsayer and their grandmother predicts his glorious reign. The more people who tell him to roll over, though, the more stubborn Jorg gets, and when Arrow brings an army of 20,000 to his gates, surrender is the last thing on his mind.

This is #2 in The Broken Empire Trilogy, and I enjoyed it almost as much as I did Prince of Thorns. If you are a little confused at the beginning and feel like you’ve missed something, don’t worry. Like the first book, this one follows two timelines: the “Wedding Day” when Jorg is fighting off Arrow’s onslaught on his castle, and “Four Years Earlier,” which explains everything leading up to that. This volume reaches even further than the previous novel, though, and adds two additional storylines: pages from Katherine’s diary, and snippets of a memory Jorg has locked away in a magical chest. I saw this as a bit of a flaw, since the four competing timelines made it difficult to keep the stories straight or to maintain any sort of accurate chronology in my head. Additionally, I felt that a lot of the themes and problems in King of Thorns came out of nowhere instead of being nicely foreshadowed in the first book. Despite these imperfections, though, I still thoroughly enjoyed the book. Jorg’s character arc was excellent, and after seeing his stint as King I’m excited to see whether he will be able to grab and hold ultimate power in the next volume.


LLK

The Rent Collector

The Rent Collector
By Camron Wright
Shadow Mountain, 2012. 271 pgs. Fiction

Sang Ly lives with her husband and young son inside Cambodia's largest municipal garbage dump. They survive by picking through the garbage to find things that can be recycled. It is a treacherous way to live and it makes it even harder that their young son is sick. The embittered old drunk that comes around to collect their rent every month just might be Sang Ly's answer to creating a brighter future for her sick son.

This book was not at all what I expected. I have heard about it for years and finally decided to read it and I am so glad I did. This was a touching story of trials, loss, hope, and literature. Often we judge people before getting to know them well enough to understand their actions. When Sang Ly reaches out to the rent collector, she begins a journey that will forever change her family's life. She discovers the power of words and education and the strength of hope. I highly recommend this book.

AL