Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

427 pages; c2010.

The Inheritance Trilogy, Book 1

About this book: Yeine Darr rules the small, backward, and barbaric country of Darr--that is, until she is summoned by her material grandfather, the patriarch of all Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, to the city of Sky. There, she is named an heir, to the surprise and consternation of her cousins and fellow heir-contenders (her mother, the patriarch's daughter and former heir, had been disowned after running away to marry Yeine's father). The timing of the summons is suspiciously close to that of her mother's murder, and Yeine tries to seek out clues while playing deadly politics with her cousins, in a culture radically different than her own and with no power base. And soon it becomes apparent that not only are humans politicking around, but the Gods are too...

My thoughts: Written in almost a confessional, oral storytelling style, this novel was both interesting and engaging. The narration jumps around as the protagonist remembers important background points or declines to tell you what's going on right then, but rather than totally break up the narrative, it just reinforces the humanity of the protagonist. However, the book is scarce on description and details of complex cultures that are hinted to exist but never shown; this may be a boon to readers who want to focus on the story at hand, but I found it to be slightly frustrating. I thought most of the characters were complex and well drawn, presenting both racial and class issues that are often neglected in fantasy novels. I this novel would appeal to both young adults and adults; the print was quite large and the the main character was 19 or 20, but many of the situations were geared towards a more adult audience. Overall, I think this is a very good debut novel, though not without flaws, and look forward to reading the others in the trilogy.

Cryer's Cross by Lisa McMann

Feb. 2011/240 pgs.

About the Book: Cryer's Cross is a small town in Montana (population 212). So when a freshman girl goes missing at the beginning of the summer, the town is thrown into a tailspin. The news especially upsets Kendall, who can't handle the worry with her OCD. When a second student goes missing and this time it's someone close to Kendall, Kendall isn't sure how she can handle it all. When she starts to hear the voices of the missing calling to her and notices messages scratched into a desk, she wonders if there's something dark at work in Cryer's Cross.

Sarah Teenlibrarian: As I've mentioned before, I don't do horror. Scary stories and Sarah do not mix. But I felt like I needed to give this book a shot for a couple of reasons: 1) I wasn't a fan of Ms. McMann's previous works (Wake, Fade and Gone) but really wanted to find something good this time around, and 2) I was attending a event she was speaking at during ALA and I felt like I should read this book before I went. (Those publishers know how to guilt librarians into reading!)

This one's described as a horror, but I never found it. Me, who can't handle the smallest scare, didn't think this book was scary or creepy at all. I think that's because the horror aspect isn't ever really there and when it's thrown in at the end, it happens too soon to have any real effect at all.

There was too much going on in this short book. Kendall has OCD, which seems to come and go at times as the author's way of explaning Kendall's quirks, but I never really got why it was important for us to know she had OCD. After hearing Ms. McMann speak, I understand that she put it in for her daughter, who also has OCD, and she wanted to feature a character where it wasn't the main focus but another aspect of the character. A good idea, but it never really seems to work the way it's intended and for reader's without this knowledge of the author's intent it might seem odd and out of place.

There's romance, but it seemed somewhat forced. I also had some issues with the way the romance was handled (spoilery issues, so I won't post too much here). There was almost a love triangle but the author writes an easy way out which really bugged me.

The mystery feels like it's second string to the main story and I'm not even sure what the main story was supposed to be. Sometimes we have a story about Kendall and her OCD, sometimes it's a story about Kendall, a girl who wants to study dance at Julliard, other times it's about Kendall the soccer player or Kendall the girl worried about the missing teens or Kendall who isn't sure what to think about new boy Jacian. The book as a whole never felt like it all worked together-it was choppy mini stories trying to make it together and it never quite pulls it off.

As for the horror, I just never thought it was there. Maybe some teens will find it gripping and compelling, but it wasn't any creepier than R.L. Stine. And the way everything is wrapped up in the end is rushed, never explained fully and comes out of the blue. The premise is good, but the execution isn't what I had hoped.

On the plus side, I thought the writing was better this time around and I do have hope for Ms. McMann's future works-this one just wasn't for me. I do think it'll fly off the shelves like her previous books, especially with teens looking for a fast, short read.

Other Goose by J. Otto Seibold

2010/69 pages

About the Book: Mother Goose was a human, so what does she know about geese? And she wrote her rhymes so long ago, what good are they now? So Other Goose (who is really an actual goose) is taking Mother Goose's rhymes and re-rhyming them to give them an updated spin. It's Mother Goose like you've never seen before!

Sarah Teenlibrarian Says: I'm a big fan of J. Otto Seibold's Olive, the Other Reindeer, so I knew I had to get my hands on this one!

The artwork is typical Seibold-quirky cuttouts that almost look like mosaics with odd characters and places. The pictures are bright and colorful and fun to look at.

The rhymes on the other hand were a little lacking. I think I was hoping for something more along the lines of Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith's Squids Will Be Squids and The Stinky Cheese Man. Some of the rhymes are cute, but not all that modernized or funny. The only one I really liked was "Blah, Blah, Blacksheep" which did make me laugh. The other rhymes were quirky and silly (which I expected) but I really thought I'd laugh more with this book.

The art is worth a look and the book is packaged beautifully. I just wanted a bit more to make me laugh.

Bloodsucking Fiends by Christopher Moore

1995/304 pgs.

About the Book: Jody is a young single woman living in San Francisco. As she's heading home one night, she's attacked by a vampire and discovers she's been turned into one as well. Since she can no longer go out in the daytime, she decides to hire an assistant. Enter C. Thomas Flood, a young aspiring writer fresh off the bus from Indiana. He accepts Jody's job offer (and finds himself with a growing attraction to his new boss). But a mysterious string of murders is following Tommy and Jody around and someone is making it look like they're to blame. With the help of Tommy's grocery story night shift co-workers and a mysterious man known as "the Emperor" Jody and Tommy work to solve the mystery before they get framed.

Sarah Teenlibrarian Says: I picked this one up thanks to my upcoming adult lit class this semester. This novel counted as one of my "horror" picks and since that's a genre I tend to shy away from, I figured I could use something that had horror aspects, but still had some humor.

I've never read any Christopher Moore's books, even though I've been told to by several co-workers, and I have to admit I should have listened to them earlier. There were many laugh out loud moments in Bloodsucking Fiends and I was thoroughly engrossed in the story. Even though the thought of another vampire novel makes me roll my eyes, this one had a bit of everything so it kept me entertained. There's mystery, humor, romance, horror, satire-I think fans who typically read outside of any of those genres could easily pick Bloodsucking Fiends up and find something they enjoy about it. It made me want to pick up the two follow up books as well.

I listened to it on audio and I really enjoyed the narrator who gave a multiple voice performance. The humor came through on audio and it worked well in this format. I listened to it on a car ride with my husband and we both enjoyed it (which isn't always easy with us!) so I think it has a wide appeal.

The only issue I noticed was that while contemporary, there were a few minor things that dated the book. Tommy carries around a typewriter to write his novel one, Jody uses a payphone to call for help and calls collect, and Tommy's family is worried he's a communist. It really made me notice how simple things can date a novel very quickly, although these things can be easily overlooked.

Prom & Prejudice by Elizabeth Eulberg

Jan. 2011/231 pgs.

About the Book: (from publicist) Lizzie Bennet, who attends Longbourn Academy on scholarship, isn't exactly interested in designer dresses and expensive shoes, but her best friend, Jane, might be—especially now that Charles Bingley is back from a semester in London. Lizzie is happy about her friend's burgeoning romance, but less than impressed by Will Darcy, a pompous jerk who looks down on the middle class. So imagine Lizzie's surprise when Will asks her to the prom! Will Lizzie's pride and Will's prejudice keep them apart? Or are they a prom couple in the making? From Elizabeth Eulberg comes a very funny, completely stylish prom season delight of Jane Austen proportions.

Sarah Teen LibrarianSays: Prom and Prejudice is a cute, light retelling of the classic Pride and Prejudice. If you have readers who enjoyed the original, this will most likely circulate well among them.

The book stays true to the original which is both good and bad. I would have liked to see a bit more originality but instead at times it felt as though the author was making sure she got in every detail from Austen's book. Because of this we don't seem to get a lot of character development. This is more for fans of the original and readers who know the original storyline.

The characters aren't developed much. I knew who they were because of the original story, but readers not familiar with the classic might have some trouble. There's not a lot of a relationship developed between Lizzie and Will and I was left a bit frustrated because I didn't really ever know what it was they saw in each other. This was what made the book as a whole not work. While there are moments that I liked, as a whole it felt like the author was trying to hard to carbon copy Pride & Prejudice, only in a modern setting. The school "prom" that is supposed to help drive the story only makes apperances when it's necessary to the plot and to remind readers of the title, but there's very little with the prom at all, which might be disappointing to readers looking for a book about the famed school dance.

The author does take good care of the story and Austen fans will appreciate that Elizabeth Eulberg is a fellow fan. The romance is light and the book's modern take has a bit of a "Gossip Girl" feel to it. It's a quick read and I would recommend it to readers who are already fans of Jane Austen. It would be a cute book to read for a book club along with the original to compare versions. I know my teens are going to love it-it won't stay on my library shelf for long!

Wishful Thinking by Alexandra Bullen

2011/242 pgs.

About the Book: Hazel has never had a mother. Adopted as a baby, her adoptive mother died shortly after and Hazel was shuffled from relative to relative growing up without a true home. So when Hazel is granted a gift of magic dresses with the power to make wishes come true, Hazel wishes she had gotten the chance to know her birth mother. Now she's transported to a time where she can make everything right. But will her journey to the past forever change her future?

Sarah TeenLibrarian Says: Wishful Thinking is a lovely magical book. The story has the feel of a fairy tale and it's a quick read-perfect for a blustery winter day when you want to curl up with a magic tale. It's a quiet book-there's not a ton of action, but there is magic and a sweet romance and readers looking for a lighter romance are sure to enjoy it.

Hazel is a character that you can easily like-she could be a depressing character who is down on herself, but instead she remains positive although sometimes a bit naive. The story moves very quickly and it doesn't take long for Hazel to get her dresses and start making her wishes. The result is a story of a girl finding the family she always longed for-although maybe not in the way she always expected.

Hazel finds herself on the island of Martha's Vineyard (a magical place itself) and the people she ends up with are a group of people I would happily spend time with. I wanted to go to their parties and hang out on the beach with them-the cast of characters is one you'll want to step inside the book and be a part of.

There are some plot twists that while I figured out early on, were still well done. I'm glad they were there-it kept the story from being too cookie-cutter. Hazel has a interest in photography and it's her time on the island that helps her develop her skills. She's given support and encouraged, but it never comes across as cheesy. Even Hazel's storyline with wanting to meet her mom could have gotten a bit cheesy but it never does. Instead it's a sweet beautiful story about a girl and her three wishes.

Wishful Thinking is a companion novel to Wish, but each book can stand on it's own and it's not necessary to read them in any order. Wishful Thinking is perfect for fairy tale fans and readers who want a little magic in their stories.

Prince Caspian

Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis - written in 1949 and published in 1951 (223 pages).

This sequel to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (The Chronicles of Narnia) continues the story of Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy who once discovered a magical land through a wardrobe door. In this book, the children meet Prince Caspian, who is king by birth, but denied his throne by his devious uncle. Fleeing for his life, Caspian unites with the hidden creatures of the land of Narnia; talking beasts, dwarves, fawns, a giant, and others including Aslan, the great lion. Caspian, the children, and the Narnians join together to win back the kingdom in this classic tale of good versus evil written for children but to be enjoyed over and over by all ages.

Hellsing: Volume 1

by Kohta Hirano, 204 pages

When vampires, ghouls, and the like run amok on English soil, the ill-equipped authorities call the experts. And then, if they're smart, they get out of the way, as the experts' pistol-wielding secret weapon has as sharp a tongue as he does teeth and, as a general rule, doesn't hesitate to use either.

Ten years ago, Sir Integra inherited the leadership of the Hellsing organization from her father. She also inherited Alucard (look at that name--now look at it backwards...), the ultimate vampire hunter, product of generations of development, sworn to serve and protect his master, who is in turn sworn to protect crown and country from the denizens of darkness. And there have been an awful lot of them popping up lately.

Alucard is a great anti-hero. He's witty. He's got mad skillz. And he's kinda evil. All of which come in handy when he's taking on the unruly undead and other interfering agents. Sardonic Integra, naive Police Girl (she has a name, Alucard just chooses not to use it), scary Father Anderson, and the rest of the cast are equally good fits (though Anderson's heavy Irish dialect can be a little difficult to follow--reading it out loud helps!). The art is also ideal for the plot and personalities, steeped as they are in darkness, action, and irreverence--as well as a good deal of blood (we are talking about vampires here, after all). So, if you're not too squeamish and like your vampires darkly insane rather than sparkly romantic, you might consider giving Alucard a look...from a safe distance.

Parasyte: Volume 7

by Hitoshi Iwaaki, 273 pages

When an alien trying to take over his body gets trapped in his right hand instead of his brain, Shuichi's life as a normal high school senior is over, for not only has his parasitic tenant decidedly not come in peace--it hasn't come alone.

This series (a Kodansha Manga Award winner in 1993) is about much more than just an alien invasion and body-snatching gone awry. Through their forced companionship and mutual dependence, Shuichi and Migi (his right hand resident) engage in an ongoing philosophical conversation about personal and collective morality. What is good? What is evil? Where does following the instinct to survive fit on that spectrum? What before would have been black and white to each of them becomes increasingly, convincingly grey, even to the reader. As the invasion progresses, the clash of cultures results in much violence and bloodshed; but wherever humans and aliens are forced to relate to each other before they can kill each other, they have the chance to learn. And therein lies hope.

In this volume, some of Migi's more successful fellow parasites have decided to pool their resources, which bodes ill for humanity (you only have to see one of their conveniently organized "dining rooms" in an earlier volume to know that this is very, very bad). Because he secretly hosts one of their kind, Shuichi can spot the invaders among us, a skill the desperate authorities forcibly employ. But when Shuichi meets another conscript, he learns that the old adage "takes one to know one" is truer than he realized and that the aliens are not the only "monsters" out there.

Kurogane: Volume 2

by Kei Toume, 249 pages

Wandering cyborg-assassin Jintetsu may have escaped the permanence of death, but he can't escape the inherent complexities of human interactions. As old acquaintances vie for his assistance in destroying one another, his weary heart is conflicted. He really ought to just walk away and leave them to their fates....

Even Haganemaru, Jintetsu's talking sword, tries to talk him out of getting involved in other people's messy business. But in these chapters, despite his intentions to the contrary (and, sometimes, despite the wishes of the individuals themselves), the pull of compassion is stronger than that of self-preservation. The results may sometimes be bittersweet, but they only confirm Jintetsu's intact humanity all the more. That this series manages to portray that without coming across as saccharine is one more reason to read it.

Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle: Volume 14

by CLAMP, 185 pages

The gang has determined that one of Sakura's lost memory feathers is in the original of the Memory Book, so they waltz right into the fortress-like central library to steal it back. However, waltzing back out again proves a little more problematic. Out of the frying pan....

In addition to a pair of giant, cool-looking fire-griffins (read: library security system--we've got to get us some of these!), this installment also treats us to some portentous observations. Everyone is watching everyone else in this volume; and whether out of concern, suspicion, or curiosity, the silent reading of subtle emotions and behaviors in which the reader also is able to participate is just one more reason to appreciate the artistry of this series. What does it all mean?! I look forward to finding out!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Runaway Twin

by Peg Kehret, 197 pages

Runaway Twin is a 2011-2012 Mark Twain Award Nominee. Sunny has spent most of her life in foster care. Although she has finally been placed in a home she likes, she is still unhappy. Sunny was separated from her twin sister, Starr, when they were three years old. She has no idea where Starr is now, but the thought of a twin sister somewhere in the world, the only person who can really understand her, haunts her thought and keeps her from being satisfied. She's always felt that something is missing, and she won't be complete until she's reunited with Starr.

When Sunny finds a mysterious sack of cash while on a hike, she decides the time has come to find her twin. She runs away from her foster home with only a vague idea of where to begin her search.

Sunny is a quick-witted and engaging main character. Her intelligence and intuition keep what could be a pretty implausible plot from seeming unbelievable. While this wasn't my favorite Mark Twain Award Nominee, this book could have a lot of appeal for older kids/YA (Sunny is 13, and there are some scary parts), and boys, if they don't mind a female main character.

Rules of an Engagement

by Suzanne Enoch, 384 pgs

With all the cold weather, I was in the mood to read something tropical.  Based on the description, this book seemed like a good fit.  Captain Bradshaw Carroway is sent to the Pacific on vague orders from the admiralty.  As a favor to a fellow adventurer, Shaw agrees to deliver a gilded mirror to the Tahitian chieftain known as King George.  In his first stop at Australia, he learns his mission is to escort a famous botanist as he completes his research for the Royal Academy.  Shaw is quickly engaged in a battle of wits with Zephyr Ponsley, the daughter and assistant of said botanist. 

This book promised an exotic locale, cannibals, and battles with French pirates.  Unfortunately, none of the dangers fully developed and the result was a nice, if slightly boring story.  I think if an author is going to put cannibals in her book, at least one of her characters should be eaten... or at least forced to perform a death defying escape like Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Odd and the Frost Giants

by Neil Gaiman, 117 pages

After he loses his father on a raiding party, Odd runs away from his cabin-fever-stricken, snowbound village. But his plans of independent living are interrupted by a trio of curious beings who may or may not be what they appear to be. Having nothing better to do, clever Odd is quickly drawn into their unique predicament and the world behind the world he's known all his life.

Gaiman is a favorite author of mine, whether writing scary cool things for grown-ups or spooky cool things for kids, and Odd's brief little adventure tale is a fitting accompaniment to the wintry cold outside our own windows just now. Also, it pleased me to no end to find that Odd's name comes from the same root (meaning "tip of the spear") as my family name. Hmmm. Perhaps I should pack up some salted salmon and an axe and head off into the woods, myself. Oh, wait. It's cold out there!

Art and Max

Art & Max, David Wiesner

Art is a master artist. Max wants to be an artist. Max paints Art. And Wiesner's indescribable imagination takes it from there. Friendship + imagination = wonderful Wiesner picture book that is sure to generate conversation and inspiration.

The Pirate of Kindergarten

The Pirate of Kindergarten by George Ella Lyon; illustrated by Lynne Avril.
Ginny loved reading, but she saw
"twice as many
2s like swans
and 3s like Bs
and bigbellied 6s
as the other kids saw."
After vision day, Ginny becomes a Kindergarten Pirate who excels at everything.
A wonderful story to help children with reading or vision challenges feel more comfortable with their differences and to help children understand that differences don't make others stupid or bad.


Dotty by Erica S. Perl; illustrated by Julia Denos

Starting school is scary. Having an imaginary friend makes it a little more bearable. But not everyone grows out of friendship with their imaginary friend at the same time, and sometimes that can be a problem.

Clever Jack Takes the Cake

Clever Jack Takes the Cake. Written by Candace Fleming; illustrated by G. Brian Karas.
This is not the Jack of southern Appalachia! This is a clever Jack, who, in his determination to attend the princess' birthday party and give her a gift, uses his wits to trade what he has for the ingredients to make a fine cake. But on his trip to the castle, creatures conspire against him and by the time he arrives, he has no cake for the princess, but he has something she enjoys much more for her birthday!

A Personal Devil: A Magdalene la Batarde Mystery

by Roberta Gellis, 324 pages

I took an elevator ride with Roberta Gellis some years ago and asked her if she was finished with the Roselynde Chronicles, her historical romance series. She said she was, because the main characters were getting to an age where she would have to start killing them off! She said she was going to write some fantasy and dabble in a few other genres.

A month or so ago I came across the first title in her medieval mystery series, which was called A Mortal Bane. I just finished this title and intend to read all of the series.

I enjoyed the well-drawn sleuth characters of Magdalene and Sir Bellamy of Itchen. A medieval scholar, Ms Gellis creates an authentic world for her characters to move through. Ms Gellis has made an interesting choice for her protagonist, since Magdalene is the proprietess of a house of ill-repute. Ironically called The Old Priory Guesthouse, Magdalene's house fills a niche in 12th century London, a place where gentlemen can enjoy female company in complete privacy. I won't spoil the story by telling you why Magdalene's establishment is unique, but because it is so, the female characters in the novels have more freedom than most women of the day.

By turns intriguing, funny and thoughtful, the books in this series will satisfy readers in the historical mystery genre.

Teh itteh bitteh book of kittehs

by Professor Happycat and

More fluffy kittehs in amusing poses. What else can I say?

The Adventures of Nanny Piggins

by R.A. Spratt 240p.
What a fun read! This title was recommended in a recent staff training session on reader's advisory for youth services staff. The title and cover art drew me in immediately. I would describe this story as a charming mix of Mary Poppins, Nanny McPhee and the Series of Unfortunate Events books all rolled into one minus the darkness and impending doom of the Unfortunate titles. I actually laughed out loud a few times (I know that's difficult to believe from me). I thoroughly enjoyed this unforgettable walk through a fantasy world where a chocoholic pig could ring the doorbell and inquire about a nanny position. Sure beats her former job as a circus performer. Don't even bother to ask about the cannon or the ballet dancing bear. Just sit back and relax. Nanny Piggins has everything under control.

Peace Maker Kurogane: Volume 4

by Nanae Chrono, 181 pages

Political machinations and personal vendettas vie for panel-time in this historical drama touched with the supernatural.

With persistent foreign interests knocking on Japan's isolationist door, the elite police force known as the Shinsengumi finds itself in a destructive tug-of-war between the supporters of the Emperor and those of the Shogunate. Meanwhile, one young man's twisted hatred threatens to tear apart both sides and throw the country into chaos.

Tetsu, having originally joined the Shinsengumi to avenge his parents' deaths, has gradually found a future to fight for rather than the past. But his one-time friend, Suzu, cannot let go of their own shared history, however misconstrued, and has allied himself with some unpleasantly dark forces in order to take Tetsu down.

Following on the heels of Peace Maker, this sequel series plummets into more consistently dark territory with the once-frequent giggles now few and far between. The politics can be hard to follow, even if you're a fan of the period, and knowing a little about the fates of the real-life people most of these characters are modeled after is both a comfort and a curse (Hey, I recognize that cool guy!--oh, wait, he's gonna bite it...); but I love most anything Shinsengumi-related if it's done well, and Chrono's attractive, darkly fantastical take on history succeeds in making me care, even if I am consciously stocking up on as many warm-fuzzies as possible in order to counter the ever-greater doom and gloom.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Anna and the French Kiss

by Stephanie Perkins, 372 pages

When Atlanta native Anna Oliphant is involuntarily enrolled in the School of America in Paris by her popular-novelist father (who is so obviously a stand-in for Nicholas Sparks--ha!), she has to leave behind everything familiar (best friends, could-have-been boyfriends, sweet red-dye-#4-allegeric little brother) and face head-on a new language, a new culture, and a new curriculum that involves lessons in more than just beginning French--like friendship, love, and her personal definition of "home".

Character development and relationships take precedence over action in this enjoyable, amusing, thoughtful teen novel. Not much "happens", but you're so busy following the character dynamics and fun dialogue that you don't notice. I learned about this novel from a "best teen reads for 2010" list on NPR and will definitely look for some of the other recommended titles.

Getting my Mark Twain on...

It's time to read all the new Mark Twain, Truman and Gateway nominees.  Anyone else? 

My Antonia by Willa Cather

I had to read this book for the Republic Branch book discussion.  I think I would have liked it more if we hadn't read The Awakening by Kate Chopin last month.  When I researched, I found that Willa Cather made some very scathing remarks about Kate Chopin's amazing book and it turned me off so much, I had a hard time reading this one without thinking of that. 
It is a classic and I think does a great job of glamorizing the American Expansion across the country.  Cather does a good job of showing how tough it was for immigrants but I don't think she went far enough.  And calling the book My Antonia when Antonia only appears in three of the five "books" of the novel seems odd.  I also think it was pretty contrived when she starts the book pretending to be someone else and pretending that Jim is really the writer.  Whaaa?! 
The first time I read the book, I loved it.  Maybe the third time I'll love it again but not this time.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Julie & Julia

by Julie Powell
(2005 | 307 p)

This particular memoir found its way onto my reading list because I stumbled upon the movie one Saturday afternoon, quite by accident. I was sucked in by Meryl Streep, really. (She did an amazing Julia Child.) But be warned, the movie is not the book. And this time I don't mean that in a "the book is always better than the movie" sort of way.

Julie Powell is having a mid-life crisis at the ripe old age of 29. She has a steady job that she mildly hates and a loving husband whom she also mildly hates (if the verbal and mental abuse she heaps on him are any indication of that sort of thing). She decides that the only way to overcome her angst is to cook her way through Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" in one year and to share her misadventures in a blog. She started this blog when blogs were the IT thing and, subsequently, got a book deal for her trouble.

There are two important things to keep in mind if you decide to read this memoir. First of all, despite what the title may indicate this book contains a lot about Julie and not enough about Julia. And, secondly, the Julie Powell of real life is not the Julie Powell of the movie. This should go without saying but somehow caught me unaware all the same. The movie Julie is cutely neurotic. The real Julie cusses like a sailor and is perpetually on the edge of a meltdown. She also manages to insult at least everyone, from Republicans to Vegetarians, at least once. It was very amusing for the first couple of chapters; I'll even admit to chuckling a time or two. She's funny. But a whole 300 some pages of her histrionics was more than I could bear. Perhaps I'm just not cut out to be a reader of memoirs?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Storm Front

by Jim Butcher, 322 pages.

I'm one of those people who normally has to read a series in order. Desperate for an audiobook to listen to on the drive home, I picked up Jim Butcher's latest, Changes. I liked the blend of magical adventure and snarky humor so much that I had to go back to the beginning of The Dresden Files.

Storm Front introduces us Harry Dresden, a somewhat shabby wizard-for-hire on the mean streets of Chicago. He's a magical consultant for the Chicago PD. Someone in the city has used the blackest of magic to murder several people, and Harry could be the next victim. Throw in an urbane crime boss, pizza loving faeries and a magical enforcer with a sword brighter than his intellect and there is nary a dull moment.

Though not as funny as Changes, Storm Front is a good introduction to Harry Dresden and the varied cast of characters who inhabit his dark and dangerous world.

The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald

This was the first book of 2011 for me.  The book's origins come from a photograph the author found.  She discovered the photo of a naked baby and found that the child in the picture was a "practice baby" for a home economics program.  She wondered what ever became of that baby and the result of her musings is The Irresistible Henry House.  It's the story of one practice baby among many but this one was special because the teacher kept him.  What kind of grown up would you be if you had eight moms who took turns taking care of you and if you saw other babies come and go while you stayed behind?  What kind of attachments would you form? if any?  I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  It was a quick, fun read and appealed to the Psychology Major in me.  I recommend it.


by Kristin Cashore, 471 pages

Katsa has been the court torturer and assassin for her uncle, King Randa, since she was a child.  The same killing grace that turned her into a powerful tool leaves her isolated even from those she considers friends.  Until one night on an undercover mission, she runs into unknown graced fighter in a dark courtyard.  Prince Po has been searching for his kidnapped grandfather.  The trail leads eventually to Katsa, who might be the one person he can trust with a dangerous secret.  These two must learn to trust each other and work together for another with a grace even more horrible than Katsa's threatens their world.

This is one of the 2010-2011 Gateway Nominees, so I expected it to be good.  I loved that the story moves quickly in the beginning.  The characters were compelling, and I was invested in the story right from the start.  There were a few slow spots in the middle of the book, and the major threats were resolved pretty abruptly.  Even with those drawbacks, I recommend this book to anyone who likes fantasy or adventure stories with a bit of a non-traditional romance.

Heart of a Shepherd

By Rosanne Parry, 161 pages.

OK, so before I said I hoped The Secret of Zoom would win the 2011-2012 Mark Twain Award. Scratch that, I spoke too soon! Stop what you're doing, put down what you're reading, and go get a copy of Heart of a Shepherd. I have not been this moved by a children's book since Walk Two Moons. I cried and cried. Man. Oof. Wow.

Heart of a Shepherd is about a boy everyone calls Brother. He lives on a ranch in Oregon with his grandparents. His father is serving in Iraq, and his mother is out of the picture. He has some sheep he tends, some older brothers, and some friends at school. And that's basically the book right there. Although things happen in the book, the story is mainly about Brother's thoughts and feelings as he deals with life, death, growing up. I can't explain the alchemy that good writing brings to a simple story to make it moving and important. All I know is I was reading a story about a boy, and then the magic of literature happened and I was crying my eyes out.

Heart of a Shepherd is a simple and thoughtful portrait of a boy on the cusp of adulthood. Even though it's categorized as J Fiction, I think YA readers might get more out of it. But who knows. I remember reading Walk Two Moons in fifth grade and loving it, and when I read it again last year I loved it for different reasons. Heart of a Shepherd is probably the same-- people of all ages will find something of value.

Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins

"I frantically racked my brain for some sort of throat-repairing spell, which I was clearly about to need. Of course the only words I actually managed to yell at the werewolf as he ran at me were, "BAD DOG!"

Sophie Mercer came into her powers as a witch when she was 13.  Only problem is her mom is a complete muggle and her dad, the warlock of the family, isn’t around to provide any training. After one too many well-intentioned magical experiments goes amuck Sophie, now 16,  is sent to Hex Hall, a boarding school for wayward magical folk. It doesn’t take long before Sophie is caught up in magical mysteries, teenage angst and a touch of romance…with the most popular girl’s boyfriend…of course.

What kept me reading all night until I’d finished was the snarky, sassy and intelligent banter of our main character Sophie.  The pacing is fast and while you get to know Sophie’s inner thoughts it is the plot that drives the novel.  Secondary characters are interesting but not overly developed and the romance elements add a splash of interest without being over the top.   2010, 323 pages.

What Happens in London

by Julia Quinn, 372 pages

When she hears some juicy rumors about her new neighbor, curious London socialite Olivia takes to rather clumsily spying on him from her bedroom window. When Sir Harry notices his long hours at his desk (translating often less-than-exciting Russian documents for the War Office) are being observed, he can't help but play along and teach his nosy neighbor a lesson. But when a snooty Russian prince and the possibility of real spies in the service of that pesky exiled Corsican enter the mix, the pair's flirtatious game of faux intrigue takes on a new twist.

The plot's climax is a little out of left field and it's hard to take it as seriously as do the characters, but the dialogue is quite smart and fun and the characters are engaging, with Sir Harry, in particular, having a surprising amount of depth, provided in part by his unusually touching backstory.

I don't generally read romance romance, but give me some nice historical detail, a little substance, and pages and pages of believable snappy comebacks and I'll happily give it a shot.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Animals Make Us Human


There has been a flurry of media around Temple Grandin in recent months - since the release of an HBO docudrama about her life.  She is equally well known for her research and writing about animal behavior and her experiences with autism.  In this book Gandin and Catherine Johnson explore the ways in which we can improve the lives of our dogs, cats, cows and more by understanding basic animal needs and behavior.  This book was fascinating.  Grandin's writing style is candid and light hearted.  The chapters read as if she is right in front of you. I learned that my kitten is a seeker and is prone some OCD.  Cows can register the color yellow and it agitates so maybe I should pick a rain jacket in blue or red.  Cows don't like shouting.  They are very sensitive to loud noises. It's okay if my dog decides that random person at the park is to be avoided.  She's using her wolf instincts and she has good reasons to do so.  Some of us non-fiction fanatics like to skip around during our reading.  With this title - you can go beginning to end or start with pigs and end on dogs. Either way, there is so much to be gained by learning a little more about our favorite home or farm pets.  I really want to read more of Grandin's books now.  She's brilliant.    

Tsubasa: Resevoir Chronicle: Volume 13

by CLAMP, 187 pages

Young archaeologist Syaoran loves his life and his best friend, the sweet, unconventional princess Sakura. When they are attacked at a desert excavation site, Sakura's memories are all turned to feathers and scattered across multiple dimensions. To retrieve them, Syaoran makes a deal with Yûko, the enigmatic space-time witch, who gives him the means to travel (in the form of her servant Mokona, a magical, fluffy, bunny-type creature) and companions (the easy-going Fai and the caustic Kurogane), who have their own closely-held reasons for leaving their respective worlds to join him. But in return for her help, each of the three must give up something precious to them. For Syaoran, those are Sakura's memories of himself.

In this volume, the companions find themselves in the world of Recort, a land resembling a Victorian London in which the supernatural is normal. While Mokona goes off to try to sense the presence of a memory feather, the others visit the magnificent central library where Kurogane discovers a book with no title and no text. But when he hands it to Syaoran, the boy is immediately flung into the world between the pages where he witnesses the tragic youth of a child who looks exactly like a young Kurogane....

CLAMP is a group of women manga-ka (manga creators) deservedly famous within Japan and around the world. Their genre-crossing stories are complex and nuanced, their characters original and endearing, and their instantly recognizable art a pleasure for the eyes. They also have a penchant for interweaving elements of their various titles together, so readers of their other works will here see random appearances and even major roles filled by familiar characters from, among others, Chobits, Cardcaptor Sakura, Tokyo Babylon, and XxxHolic (which is actually the home world of Yûko and a parallel crossover with Tsubasa that doesn't have to be read at the same time in order to follow the plot).

As corny as the premise for this series sounds, it's really quite powerful. The first few almost wordless panels of the first volume nearly made me cry. And although not every episode in the Tsubasa saga has been as entertaining as it could be (one in which the gang participates in a flying race has loads of boring zipping about and little character or plot development), the series as a whole (so far!) is ambitious and intriguing. This volume is especially effective as it reveals so much of Kurogane and who he was before life made him into the brusque, pragmatic, bitter (but still with a deeply-buried warm gooey center) man he is now. And I'm not just saying that because I have a little crush on him. Really.

Black Cat: Volume 9: Showdown at the Old Castle

by Kentaro Yabuki, 191 pages

Train Heartnet was once the notorious agent No. XIII, also known as the Black Cat, on the payroll of Chrono, a shady corporation with control over a good chunk of the global economy. When he walked away from the job to become a carefree independent bounty hunter, called a sweeper, he left behind good memories and bad. And one of the worst has resurfaced. His former cohort Creed went off the deep end years ago and now wants Train to join his regime-toppling revolution, the Apostles; but Train knows better than to get involved with the maniacal, cold-hearted killer responsible for the death of someone close to him. Train's former employers, however, won't let him off the hook so easily, as they need him to help them bring down their rogue agent.

Between annoying his partner Sven by spending all their hard-earned cash on food, babysitting sweet-natured but deadly child-cyborg Eve whom they rescued / adopted in an earlier installment, and trying to outwit clever rival (and master-thief) Rinslet, Train already has his work cut out for him. Now he finds himself fighting supernaturally-skilled Apostles left and right, repeatedly refusing Creed's offers of renewed camaraderie, and trying to keep himself and his friends alive, all while avoiding as much responsibility as possible.

In this volume, Train and Rinslet have been lured by Chrono's top agent to Creed's latest hideout, where the villain reveals a small piece of his revolutionary plan (involving nano-agents and atavistic genes--ohnoes!) before blowing the place up--smiling the whole time, of course.

This supernatural action / mystery manga series is a little fun, a lot hokey, and a bit dark. If you can suspend disbelief enough to accept the sometimes cartoonish minions of both Chrono and the Apostles along with Train's physics-defying shooting skills, the jokes and the drama make for a nice balance and a not unpleasant way to spend a few hours.