Friday, June 1, 2012

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

165 pages, 1902.
I have to admit, the new Sherlock Holmes series on BBC inspired me to pick up Arthur Conan Doyle's work again. I love the show and wanted to look at the differences between a turn-of-the-century classically written mystery and a modern, very CSI-esque movie/television version of the same story. I won't give up any secrets, but will say that I am equally impressed with the original as I am with the show.

I really enjoy Doyle's writing style, including his use of humor and descriptive ability. I've never visited a bog or a moor, but I could see these landscapes as I was reading and feel the dreariness that they impart. I look forward to reading more about the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in the very near future.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Surrogates

by Robert Venditti (story) and Brett Weldele (art), 204 pages

In the not too distant future, most people stay home and live and work remotely through highly realistic high-tech robots called surrogates.  When his surrogate is damaged while investigating the destruction of several surrogates in an electrical storm and during a break-in at a lab, Harvey finds himself the odd man out when he decides to actually go to work in person.

This near-future dystopian story is more social commentary (/warning?) than mystery, but I enjoyed pondering the questions it poses.  From what I hear, the movie adaptation with Bruce Willis is quite different, so I'll have to watch it and compare the two.  If you give this a look-see, you might consider coming to BWD to chat about it in the fall when it has its turn in our ongoing graphic novel discussions.*

*the third Thursday of every month at 6:30 (shameless program plug)  :P

The Alcoholic

by Jonathan Ames (story) and Dean Haspiel (art), 136 pages

Smart, clever, likeable Jonathan A. has his first drink in high school, and though he certainly looks back often, he can't leave the stuff alone for long.  As years pass, he survives and even succeeds despite his wide range of ill-advised habits and choices, which only makes him hate himself more.  Sex, drugs, life, death, love, loneliness, and always the booze confuse, sabotage, and buoy him and take him for physical and emotional highs and lows no rollercoaster could match, however much he tells himself he should and will get off.

You're not sure how much of Jonathan A. there is in Jonathan Ames, but you can't help but connect the two and read this as elaborated-upon reality, making the emotional turmoil and stubborn vulnerability of the protagonist believable and affecting, however ridiculous and unlikely some of the messes he gets into may be.  It feels unsparingly honest even if it's all made up.  The lack of willpower, the rationalizing, the self-awareness paired with the inability to do anything about it are all too familiar to anyone who's ever done something stupid more than once, regardless of scale.  And Haspiel's clean, simple art is as self-deprecating and relatable as the story it conveys.

American Vampire: Volume 1

by Scott Snyder and Stephen King (story) and Rafael Albuquerque (art), 193 pages

Skinner Sweet's a vampire, but he's not a sparkly pretty boy or a brooding aristocrat--he's a murdering bandit on America's frontier who happens to get turned on his way to trial.  Flash forward a few decades to the roaring twenties as Pearl Jones, an aspiring young actress, finds herself on the menu at an elite Hollywood party after ignoring the warning of her scruffy, obnoxious new neighbor.  As the narrative weaves back and forth in history we see how these stories converge and part and then slash their way forward.

I like the idea of making vampires scary again, but this is a little gruesome and hokey for my taste and not quite as original as it seems to think it is if you break it down.  The art's ok but I am not a fan of all-out horror and this is definitely more than just tinged.  I don't know if I'll read the next one or not.  If you're a Stephen King fan, you'll probably like this, though (I failed to notice his name on it till I sat down to read it--so observant, am I).  Skinner is an interesting amoral anti-hero / mentor and it's nice to see a female character take physical and emotional charge of her own situation (though she still manages to be a damsel in distress, which is less cool).  Not my cup of tea, this, but your more-monstrous-than-moody vampire mileage may vary.

Waltz with Bashir: A Lebanon War Story

by Ari Folman and David Polonsky, 177 pages

A friend's dream about vengeful dogs triggers a surviving Israeli soldier's search for the truth of what happened during his service in the war with Lebanon and his memories of the massacre of Palestinian civilians his mind has sealed off to protect him.

This story is powerful and I'm sure the animated film from which this graphic novel is adapted is harrowing and visually arresting; but static as it is here, one aspect of the artwork kept me from investing in the story and characters as much as I'd have liked.  Largely consisting of altered photography from the war, the images have built-in realism that works great for backgrounds (crumbling buildings, burning tanks, low-flying fighter planes) but clashes with the way the creators chose to portray the modern-day characters (their remembered younger selves look more drawn and less photo-like).  Their designs look like drawn-and-air-brushed-over photographs that have been enlarged or shrunken or flipped to fit the needs of the various panels and then pasted on top of the more realistic backgrounds.  They almost never alter the expressions, so pages are filled with the same flat, lifeless faces over and over again, cutting the characters off emotionally and visually from their deep, painful conversations and the terrible events around them.  This could be intentional, to show how they've distanced themselves from the trauma and are just going through the motions, but I mostly found it distracting, lazy-looking, and a drain on the emotional umpf.  Some of the other imagery, though, is haunting and the story's questions about memory and trauma and guilt are important ones.  If only those few bland, frozen faces were different!

I'd say watch the film, instead, but only if you're prepared to be presented with frames of harsh reality, as I assume it does as this book and ends with a handful of unaltered photographs of the massacre's victims.  I was not ready and had to shut my eyes and close the book.

Crimson Hero: Volume 14

by Mitsuba Takanashi, 177 pages

Haibuki's emotional issues make him a prime target for a rival school that wants to woo him for their team.  But Yushin and the guys can't make it without him--and more importantly, they don't want to--so Yushin runs after him to apologize and convince him to return to Crimson.

This being shojo, blackmailer Kaz is as miserable as the people whose lives he's thrown into chaos.  There's some justice in that, I guess, but I still think he needs to answer to somebody besides beneficent Nobara.  But I guess since he's all reformed and repentant it'd be bad form to report his backside to the authorities now, eh?  Well, at least in a romance comic.  *the justice-lover in me still cringes, regardless*

Crimson Hero: Volume 13

by Mitsuba Takanashi, 170 pages

Kaz makes good on his threat and now nobody's happy.

Sheesh, Nobara, way to make things even more melodramatic than they already were.  Yes, volleyball is important.  But so is being honest with the people most important to you.

Crimson Hero: Volume 12

by Mitsuba Takanashi, 204 pages

Nobara's life gets complicated by the unwanted attentions of an unscrupulous boy at school who threatens to upend her whole life if she doesn't play by his rules.  Things go downhill from there.

Haibuki doesn't take it so well, does he?  And just when things were getting comfy again between him and Tomoyo.  Personally, I think Kaz (the blackmailing stalker) deserves a bit more official punishment than just getting yanked around by his shirt collar, but this is shojo, after all, and they like to gloss over the practical in favor of the emotional.

Stitches: A Memoir

by David Small, 329 pages

This graphic memoir recounts the childhood and adolescence of the author as he deals with the dysfunction of his family and the loss of his voice due to thyroid cancer.

There's a lot of pent-up anger and bitterness in these pages and the reader feels both sympathy and antipathy towards just about everybody, including the narrator.  But she understands that, in the real world, bad situations do not bring out the best in everyone and she pities the struggles these people deal with, even if they don't always deal with them constructively.  She also hopes that, after all this suffering, they have the chance to do and be better in less sad and frightening futures.  The fact that this book exists at all may be evidence that, at least in some way, they have.

The Sigh

by Marjane Satrapi, 56 pages

A different twist on the beauty and the beast theme, this short illustrated story about a young woman who finds, loses, and regains love is a fairy tale / fable concerning the tenuous nature of life and the power of persistent, forthright, selfless strength to keep it as close as possible as long as it is ours to keep.

Short but sweet, this, and a lot less traumatic than the author's graphic memoirs and family stories.  There's not much to it, but you need a little fluffy optimism and fairy tale-ness after experiencing the things she has (and after reading about them).  My only complaint is that this is so slight that it might work better as part of a collection than a stand-alone volume.

Sweet Tooth: Volume 4: Endangered Species

by Jeff Lemire, 167 pages

Gus and company head north to learn the truth of Gus's (and hopefully the plague's) origins.  Along the way, they encounter a strange man holing up within the walls of a dam-turned-fortress-of-self-sufficiency.  He offers them sanctuary and a home, but Jeppard doesn't like it.  Who to believe?  They're all so tired of being afraid and running, but if they stay they may never solve the mystery.

Ooh, I don't trust him, either!  Get out of there, people!

A Bride's Story: Volume 3

by Kaoru Mori, 207 pages

Mr. Smith tries to meet his guide to Turkey and instead has his horse stolen, gets arrested as a spy, and finds his heart wrapped up in a big, emotionally and culturally confusing mess.

The choice to follow Mr. Smith away from Amir and Karluk's home is a risky one, but it didn't take me many pages to decide I was ok with it.  We still see theirs and other familiar faces and have front-row seats to the street market, food preparation, social rules, and politics of the period and region.  Mori's research and dedication to detail in both her art and the story are just a wee bit fantastic and make every volume so far an engaging, enlightening, and enjoyable experience.  Still, the idealist / romantic in me hopes we return to some of these particular plot threads at some point in the future and tie them up with a happy knot.

Friends with Boys

by Faith Erin Hicks, 219 pages

After years of homeschooling with her three older brothers, Maggie's finally starting her first day at a public high school.  She struggles to fit in, find friends, understand the cliques and pressures and personal histories, deal with teachers who aren't her mom, and do homework.  Plus, there's her mom's conspicuous absence, for which Maggie feels responsible.  To top it off, there's the ghost.

This is a sweet, funny, memoir-ish story of family bonds, awkward adolescence, and friendship that anybody can identify with, even if they weren't homeschooled or haunted.  Hicks's characters are relatable both physically and emotionally, with nobody "perfect," and her tone is a mix of melancholy, wit, and hope as her characters learn to move past their hurts and look forward to the inevitable challenges ahead with more confidence and the support of one another.

a + e 4EVER

by I. Merey, 209 pages

Two young people on the social fringe struggle with identity, hormones, dysfunction, and acceptance in this touching, edgy tale of awkward adolescence and the confusing emotional and physical bonds of love and friendship.

Quiet Asher Machnik is teased for being such a pretty boy that he looks like a girl.  Brash Eulalie Mason, with her partly shaved head and numerous piercings, is in no danger of being called girly.  One day in the cafeteria, the two meet, find some common ground, and gradually develop a fragile friendship.  But just as big-talking Eulalie starts to figure out that what she feels for loner Asher is more than friendship, he's figuring out that boys are definitely not outside his interests, and the two must figure out where that leaves them and what they are to each other.

Merey's art is inky and free and fits her independent yet vulnerable characters well.  This is not a safe, cute, high school romance.  Sex, drugs, and club culture mix with everyday home life and simple pleasures like sitting around sketching and sharing music.  As these troubled kids stumble through change and its challenges, the reader laughs with them, fears for them, and roots for their happiness, whatever shape it ultimately takes.

The Complete Persepolis

by Marjane Satrapi, 341 pages

The author recounts her childhood and coming-of-age before, during, and after Iran's Islamic Revolution.

The first half of this memoir focuses on what's happening in the country around her, the second on how those experiences continue to shape her as an individual.  Satrapi is precocious, curious, outspoken, blunt, and fiercely independent, none of which make her safe in her home country and none of which help her adapt to her adopted ones when her liberal, loving family sends her away for her own protection.  Despite the frightening events and personal struggles portrayed, there's still a wonderful, snarky sense of humor that surfaces when needed and that exemplifies the author's bitter refusal to give in and knuckle-under.  With her simple yet powerful artwork, Satrapi manages to convey the joys and fears and hope and anger of a side of Iran that Westerner's don't even know is there--the familiar, complex, human one.  When the animated film adaptation came out a few years ago, Stephen Colbert interviewed Satrapi and warned viewers of the film's dangerousness--it made the enemy look no different than us.  A wonderful, powerful book that will give you a very personal history lesson in the form of a mirror held up from the other side of the world.

Olympians: Volume 4: Hades, Lord of the Dead

by George O'Connor, 77 pages

Sadly, Greek mythology does not give its lord of the underworld many stories in which he stars (he's often just kinda there in the background, doing his underworldy thing), so it's not O'Connor's fault that Hades is more of a supporting character even in his own book. The real protagonist here is Persephone and her transition from sheltered, flower-picking daughter to Goth, reform-minded bride. Kelley J. and I have had many discussions about this new take on the story. Socially inept Hades doesn't seem all that bad, despite having kidnapped his bride-to-be, since he had permission from her daddy Zeus (who just neglected to mention it to her overprotective [?] mother, Demeter) and is uncomfortable with the idea of keeping her by force. And what of Persephone's acclimation to her situation? Is it Stockholm Syndrome? Is she just morphing herself to fit whoever has the most influence over her? Or is she simply taking this unforeseen opportunity to discover her rebellious, independent side?

As per the usual, this volume offers much to entertain and educate while encouraging further thought and discussion. I recommend reading it with a friend and then sitting down over food and drink to analyze at your leisure. :P I look forward to the next book!

Olympians: Volume 3: Hera, The Goddess and Her Glory

by George O'Connor, 77 pages

The title of this volume is a little sneaky, in that Heracles's name means "Hera's Glory," so the legendary hero gets about as much page-time as she does.

Somehow, O'Connor manages to make both vengeful Hera and philandering Zeus sympathetic.  They are who and what they are, have known so from the beginning of their tumultuous relationship, and--despite everything--they care.  That doesn't mean  they don't make each other's lives difficult, however.  With all the marital drama, you'd think this would devolve into a soap, but it never does.  Heracles's trials provide action to balance the drama.  And, as always, there's a healthy dose of giggles and the usual rich, enlightening research notes.  O'Connor also sneaks in a nice alternate explanation for the title at the very end.  Haha!

Olympians: Volume 2: Athena, Grey-Eyed Goddess

by George O'Connor, 77 pages

This volume in the series relates the "birth" of Athena, her journey from feared usurper to favorite child, and how she came to be such a strong, powerful woman.

Everything I loved about the first volume, I love about this one. Athena kicks a lot of backside, too, which makes me even happier. She fights beasties, pals around with her brother Apollo, assists adventurers like Perseus, and shows the depth of and reasons for her fabled pride. Humor, action, drama and more researchy goodness. :)

Olympians: Volume 1: Zeus, King of the Gods

by George O'Connor, 77 pages

Love mythology? Can't remember how all those names and stories relate to each other? Read these.

Zeus, King of the Gods is a wonderfully readable retelling of creation, the origins of the Olympians, and the rise of Zeus in Greek mythology. O'Connor's tale is heavily researched, written to draw you in, and drawn to fit the epic and the personal as he makes all the complicated relationships and rivalries fall into place and feel like an actual story and not just a bunch of random facts. He keeps it accessible to mature younger readers but without dumbing things down or skimming over elements like Zeus's roving eye or the greedy, fearful betrayals of parents and children. He also provides lots of helpful extras, such as a simplified (yet still ridiculously complex!) family tree and paragraphs where he talks about his research and how he chose which elements to include. It's fascinating stuff!

I love the images of the shadowed, towering Titans with their heads blurring into the clouds and the traditional repeated poetical phrases and images ("there was too much of his father in him" with characters' eyes filled with the night sky; mother Gaea crying because "she loved all her children" with the rain pouring down on the landscape). Adults will find just as much to enjoy here as the tween / teen target audience. Exciting, funny, educational, and entertaining, this is a great starting point for the rest of the series.

Dengeki Daisy: Volume 8

by Kyousuke Motmoi, 186 pages

Teru has lost contact with Daisy, who seems to have abandoned her out of guilt over his past. She wallows in loneliness, worry, and her own share of guilt, unable to do anything. But once she has some sense knocked into her by a concerned friend, she regains her old self, who doesn't much go for the passive role when it comes to people she cares about.

Finally! We learn the history of Daisy and Teru's brother and all the technological and political intrigue that pulled them together and set them on their paths. So sad! Knowing the source details makes it easier to accept all the melodrama that's followed. This volume also highlights the many little ways in which this series defies expectations and plays with and tweaks the standard shojo formula. You go, Teru! Go rescue your man!

Blue Exorcist: Volume 4

by Kazue Kato, 195 pages

After Shura's involvement, her higher-ups in the Vatican want to know why Rin--now clearly shown to be "of Satan"--isn't dead, since that was her original mandate as an exorcist. The ensuing hearing before the court means Rin's classmates now know his secret, too. And they do not all accept this revised image of him with open arms.

Aw, poor Rin. He's such a nice kid. And he was just starting to appreciate what it meant to have friends. They'll come around, I'm sure. In the meantime, he's got to learn how to control his powers, otherwise the court's going to change their mind about allowing his continued existence. I'm a big fan of family-bonding in my reading, so I look forward to seeing how Rin's rational, talented fraternal twin Yukio (also a son of Satan, but one who doesn't appear to have inherited any of his daddy's powers) is developed now that the secret's out and everyone will be comparing the two of them.

Blue Exorcist: Volume 3

by Kazue Kato, 203 pages

Rin's feeling pretty confident after defusing a dangerous situation and bonding with a grieving demon cat. But a mission to a haunted amusement park introduces him to a new adversary (of sorts) brought in by the mysterious Mephisto. It also leads to the revealing of the true identity of what he thought was just another of his classmates. But Shura's no student and making friends is not her least, not her official one.

Demon kitty I like; Mephisto's little sibling I find interesting; but I do not like Shura, with her too-small bikini top and obvious visual fanservice role. If she were drawn differently, I'd be fine with her character, but she's probably my least favorite so far just because I find her design mildly offensive in an otherwise pretty thoughtful, balanced action series. That outfit is just so impractical and uncomfortable-looking that it disrupts the reader's ability to suspend disbelief. I can accept affectionate two-tailed demon cats who get drunk on catnip sake, but I cannot accept that bikini top. *sigh* In my head, she's a pale wanna-be imitation of Gurren Lagann's Yoko, whose sex-appeal I could get behind because she was just that cool (and the guys got as much exposure as she did--equal opportunity!). Ah, the little things we get hung-up on....

Blue Exorcist: Volume 2

by Kazue Kato, 203 pages

Rin and his classmates at True Cross Academy's exorcism cram school find more than just their skills tested as they learn the value of friendship and teamwork. Some of the "exams," however, go a little bit overboard and now they may have to worry about trusting their teachers as well as each other.

Mephisto, the school's director, seems to take a personal interest in testing Rin's limits, but to what purpose? He's funny, so I'm inclined to like him, even if he's not entirely deserving of "good guy" status. It's good to see the kiddos learning to be thoughtful of one another and figuring out their own strengths and weaknesses and goals.

"Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection"

375 pages

For The Know-It-All, A.J. Jacobs read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. For The Year of Living Biblically, he attempted to follow every rule in the Bible for a year. For The Guinea Pig Diaries, he did a whole bunch of crazy stuff, including practice Radical Honesty and attend the Academy Awards disguised as a movie star. Now, in Drop Dead Healthy, he chronicles his latest endeavor: trying to become the healthiest person alive. Basically, this means doing a ton of research and meeting with lots of experts, then trying all the different things that are supposed to make human beings more healthy. Jacobs focuses on different parts of the body--the heart, the lungs, the stomach, the skin, etc--for a month each and writes about what did and didn't get results. And, of course, drives his poor wife, Julie, crazy during the whole thing. 

I have enjoyed all of A.J. Jacobs' books--in fact, I like his style so much that I originally subscribed to Esquire magazine just to read more of his writing between books. I like experimental journalism in general, but I especially appreciate the goofy but thoughtful approach Jacobs uses. Obviously my expectations for Drop Dead Healthy were high, and I was not disappointed. As usual, Jacobs really did his research and covered angles that I hadn't even thought of. It did seem a bit overwhelming in some places; perhaps it would have been less staggering if he'd chosen a more narrow focus for the project. There's just so much information out there and so many experts who contradict each other, so maybe Jacobs bit off more than he could chew. Still, I actually learned quite a bit. Sure, there's plenty of stuff that we've all heard before--always eat breakfast, move as little as possible, and just suck it up and floss, for goodness' sake--but he weeds out some things that don't work and comes up with some good tips for actually doing some of the things the experts recommend. And I was cracking up through the whole thing. Jacobs isn't afraid to make fun of himself, and there are certainly plenty of opportunities to do so in a book about trying to be more healthy (think feeling wimpy next to the muscleheads at the gym and trying poop without sitting down). The best thing about this book, however, is that it made me much more aware of my health and how I treat myself. It sort of gave me a wake up call about how much better I'll feel if I do a few small things for my health, and it definitely motivated me to eat more fresh, local foods; get more sleep; move more throughout the day; and more. Drop Dead Healthy is a book I'd recommend for anyone who feels like they need a boost in inspiration and wants to have some fun along the way.

This Time Together

by Carol Burnett
267 pages

This audiobook was entertaining and enjoyable.  This book is a collection of memorable stories from Carol Burnett's past.  Carol Burnett narrates it, so her emotions shine through as she tells each story.  Many are funny, but some are sad.   I enjoyed the fact that she had the ability to be starstruck, like when she meets actors like Jimmy Stewart and Marlon Brando. Overall, this was enjoyable and a great way to get to know a legendary figure better.

A Dance With Dragons

A Song of Ice and Fire, book 5
by George R.R. Martin
1016 pages

This book is in many ways more of a companion than a sequel to book 4.  The storyline overlaps quite a bit.  However, this book covers more time than book 4 does and ends at the beginning of winter.  This book covers Tyrion, Jon, Daenerys in great detail.  Bran and Davos also get a few chapters, but we're kind of left hanging about what exactly is going on with them.  Characters from book 4 also re-emerge.  We do find out what happens to Cersei and Arya, and we get a glimpse of Jaime.  However, we are still left hanging as to what happens to Sansa and Brienne of Tarth.

A few other characters reappear or are introduced for the first time.  I had thought Theon was dead, but apparently not.  Unless Martin describes a corpse, you should not assume someone is dead.  Victarion Greyjoy, Quentyn Martell, and Ser Barristan Selmy also contribute.  A new, very important player in the game of thrones is also introduced, but his perspective is not shown.  I'm now not so confident about who is going to win the game.  My bets were on Daenerys, but this new player has definitely thrown a wrench in that plan, especially since Daenerys is barren.

"Unholy Night" by Seth Grahame-Smith

307 pages

We all know the story of Jesus Christ's birth: more than 2,000 years ago, a virgin mother-to-be and her devoted husband traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where the baby was born in a manger because there was no room at the nearby inn. Soon after, the baby and his parents were visited by three wise men bearing gifts because they knew the child was the son of God. Well, Unholy Night tells a version of this well-known story that you definitely haven't heard before. The wise men who visited Jesus aren't the real magi--they are three criminals who manage to escape the gallows by trading places with the actual wise men and escaping into the desert. There they meet Mary, Joseph, and their tiny child, but they have no clue that the baby is the Messiah--in fact, they don't even believe it when they are  told. Still, they choose to stick with the family as they journey to Egypt to escape Herod, and their lives are changed forever. 

This book is completely different from what I thought it would be, in nearly every way. After reading Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, I expected irony and plain old goofiness that would make me laugh out loud. Unholy Night isn't really like that. There are a few moments that are a little silly, but for the most part, I think, it lacks the humor of Grahame-Smith's other work. That doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it, though, because actually I liked it quite a bit. I don't think he intended for it to be like his other books--he wanted to tell a different kind of story. And an interesting story it is. Surprisingly, it's not nearly as sacrilegious as I expected. I didn't feel like it ever poked fun at religious belief or even indicated that Jesus wasn't actually the Messiah. It basically just told another version of the story. There are some really good twists in the plot (my favorite involves the fate of the two "wise men" who betray Mary, Joseph, and Jesus) and a satisfying ending. Even though it wasn't what I expected, Unholy Night pleased me just the same. 


By Marissa Meyer
Lunar Chronicles Series #1
400 pages

Cinder is your typical retelling of Cinderella.  Only it is set in the future, the Lunar race from the moon is attempting to take over Earth, and Cinderella is a cyborg.

Cinder is an orphan with no past, all she knows is that the same accident that killed her family also disfigured her to the point of needing mechanical parts to survive.  Cyborgs are inferior in her society, add to that the fact that her adoptive mother despises her and her life is far from pleasant.  But all is not terrible, she is a gifted mechanic, has close bonds with her family's android and her stepsister, and one day the prince himself stops in her shop and is quite friendly with her.  Everything changes in an instant though when the deadly plague appears in her house.  Suddenly, Cinder is realizing that there is much more to the story of her past, and it is only the beginning.

This was a fun read and I'm looking forward to the next book.  Meyer did a wonderful job incorporating the traditional Cinderella story in with a sci-fi plot.  I only wish she had left out the part about the ball.  It seemed like much too much of a stretch, I think a more appropriate event could have been substituted.  Otherwise a fun story for summer reading!


By Karen Russell
320 pages

Ava Bigtree is hardly your typical thirteen-year-old.  She lies in the middle of the Florida Everglades on an island that holds her family's alligator wrestling theme park.  She has spent her life running free in the swamp, entertaining tourists, and training to follow her mother's footsteps as the park's headlining alligator wrestler.  But when her mother dies suddenly, life changes very fast.  The park begins to fail, her father is in denial and disappears, her brother leaves to try to earn money on the mainland, and her sister Ossie becomes obsessed with ghosts.  When Ossie disappears, Ava is the only one who can save her.  The only problem is, who will save Ava?

The Hidden Gallery

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place #2
By Maryrose Wood
240 pages

Book two of the Incorrigible Children takes the children and Penelope to London.  Planning an educational jaunt with the children with an opportunity to see her beloved former teacher thrown in (and some obligatory shopping with Lady Ashton), Penelope finds herself deeply in the mystery surrounding the children.  As she tries to unravel the intentions of Lord Ashton and his cronies, she also begins to realize that her own past is more of a mystery than she originally thought.  Throw in a medium with a frightening premonition, a handsome and helpful aspiring playwright, and some pirates and we have a truly worthy sequel.  Go get it, now!

Picture the Dead

By Adele Griffin
264 pages

Jennie Lovell is mourning the loss of her twin brother killed in the Civil War when her cousin and brother of her fiance comes home.  Jennie knows intuitively that her beloved Will is gone too.  This is far more serious than simply a lost love, orphaned Jennie is at the mercy of her hateful aunt and uncle, Will's parents.  Without her engagement, she is far from safe.  But what will happen to her is nothing compared to the mystery surrounding Will's death and Quinn's intentions.

I wasn't interested in this book at all, I found Jennie to be an annoying damsel in distress and less concerned about her broken heart than whether or not her aunt would allow her to have a new dress.  The premise was interesting, but done before and the characters just weren't strong enough to support it.

Froi of the Exiles

The Lumatere Chronicles #2
By Marlena Marchetta
593 pages
ARC copy

It is three years after the Curse on Lumatere was lifted, and while the kingdom is healing, life is far from easy.  Many parts of the land remain barren, the citizens still distrust each other, and the threat from neighboring kingdom Charyn is becoming more serious by the day.  Froi has come no closer to knowing his past, but he is ok with that.  He is working the land, training to be a soldier, and still completely devoted to Finnikin and Queen Isaboe.  It is that devotion that prompts him to take on a dangerous quest into Charyn to assassinate their king and remove the threat to Lumatere.  But things do not go as planned in Charyn as Froi learns of Charyn's own horrifying curse, meets strange characters whose motives are questionable, and most importantly the insane Princess Quintana.  The 'Reginita' is foretold to break the curse and save Charyn, but sees that as her only worth in life.  The way she has to attempt to break the curse has done nothing for her self esteem.  As Froi finds himself embroiled in the situation in Charyn, he is faced with feelings he didn't know he was capable of, fearful that his work in the country is a betrayal to his Finnikin and Isaboe, and begins to unravel his own strange past.

I liked this much more than I thought I would.  Froi was not my favorite character in book one, and I didn't think I would connect with him in the same way I connected with Finnikin, but I did.  I was drawn in to the mystery of Charyn and of Froi.  I was also pleased to see that we don't leave Lumatere behind, Marchetta keeps us updated on what is happening there as well as in Charyn.  I did feel this was a little long, there were some sections that seemed to drag and I could have done without, but all in all, I enjoyed it.


By R.J. Palacio
313 pages
ARC copy

August Pullman is a typical kid with a highly atypical appearance.  Massive birth defects left him with a highly deformed face.  He has already been through more surgeries than most people will go through in their entire lives.  He is a happy child though, and finds ways to cope with his appearance.  When he was younger, that involved wearing an astronaut helmet 24/7, but now he just stays in safe places with safe people who are comfortable around him.  All that is about to change, however, Auggie is about to start the fifth grade.  He has never been to school before, he has never before been thrown into the ring with children who can be cruel if there is nothing wrong with you, and have no idea how to react to seeing something they don't understand.  Will he have enough strength and support to make it?

I was hesitant to read this book, it has certainly garnered a lot of buzz, but I was afraid of another saccharin-ly sweet, the-different-kid-has-to-deal-with-mean-kids book.  But it wasn't that at all.  I never once pitied Auggie.  I felt for him, but he is not a character to be pitied.  To be sure, my heart broke when the kids were cruel to him, when the well-meaning teachers made the situation worse, when his sister started to crack under the pressure of being "Auggie's Sister" instead of her own person.  It is a rough story, to be sure, but it is frank and honest.  Auggie is a tough kid, but he is just a kid, particularly one who has been a bit coddled and you see that vulnerability.  He has a loving family, but not a perfect one.  His mom is overprotective, his dad throws out the things he uses as crutches, and his sister is struggling with her own identity and frustrations.  The kids are real, even the nice ones can be mean and they don't know why.  The chapters are done from different points of view, which works really well.  My only wish is that there had been a chapter from the point of view of the main bully, I would have liked to see inside his head.  This is a fantastic book, one of those that everyone should read.

The Mysterious Howling

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, #1
By Maryrose Wood
288 pages

Penelope is quite nervous.  She is leaving Swanburne's Academy for Poor Bright Females which has been her home for most of her life, and travelling to Ashton Place to hopefully become the family's governess.  She doesn't know much about the Ashtons, but she assumes that she will be caring for some charming children in a lovely home.  Not quite true.  The children are actually not the Ashtons' children at all, but rather three youngsters they found in the woods, quite naked and with no manners to speak of, apparently raised by wolves.  As Penelope gets to work teaching them English and proper hygiene (Latin and advanced arithmetic may have to wait a bit), she is of course curious as to the story of these three 'Incorrigible Children'.  But that is only the first mystery Penelope will be faced with in this unusual family...

These books are a total hoot!  The language, commentary, and occasional asides are quirky and hilarious.  The characters are memorable and I am completely intrigued with the story.  One of my favorites of the month!

Wisdom's Kiss

By Catherine Gilbert Murdock
314 pages

The kingdom of Montagne is in peril!  The conniving duchess of the neighboring kingdom has schemed to remove the young queen from the throne and replace her with her silly younger sister who is engaged to the duchess's son.  But all too soon, Princess Wisdom (known as Dizzy) realizes that marrying the young duke and potentially ruling both countries is NOT what she wants.  With the help of Tips, a young soldier with a secret, and Fortitude, a serving-girl-in-love-with-Tips-turned-unexpected-lady-in-waiting, maybe Dizzy can achieve all of her dreams, save her sister, and her kingdom.  Unfortunately, it might be at the expense of Fortitude.  This story is written in letter and diary format by the main characters and others and is just fun.  And there is a cat, as if you needed another reason.

Why We Broke Up

By Daniel Handler
354 pages

Min and Ed have broken up, and to bring closure to herself, Min has written Ed a long letter chronicling their relationship and why it was doomed.  And doomed it was, many of their friends and acquaintances knew it from the beginning, and while reflecting, Min sees it clearly too.  Two very different kids, with very different friends, families, interests and aspirations.  Throughout the book, we watch Min give up so much of her identity to invest in this relationship...why?  There really isn't a clear reason why the two fall so madly for each other so quickly, but I think most of us can identify with that feeling.  Min wonders this too, after the fact, but acknowledges that at the time she was blind to the warnings and imperfections in their relationship.  While reading this, I was irritated with Min for blowing off her friends and being blind to the obvious warning signs, and strongly disliked Ed for most of the book because of his arrogance and egotism.  This book is very honest, throughout you feel Min's bitterness towards Ed, but still some lingering tenderness too.  I would love love love to see a sequel from Ed's point of view, not necessarily a letter like this one, but something that explains his side, lets us know if he was truly as arrogant as he was portrayed or if that was just Min's bitterness, and answers the burning questions, did he truly love Min?  And if so, why make the choices he made?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

"Age of Miracles" by Karen Thompson Walker

288 pages

Eleven-year-old Julia is a single child who feels like she doesn't quite fit in anywhere. She has only one real friend, and, at home, her parents are beginning to fight more and more. Then the unbelievable happens. After a massive earthquake, the rotation of the Earth begins to slow down. Scientists are at a loss to figure out how to fix it. The days and nights grow longer. Friends and neighbors begin to turn on each other as some people, dubbed "clock-timers," stick with the 24-hour day while others--the "real-timers"--live by the sun, and each group grows suspicious of the other. Readers see it all through the eyes of Julia, who is coming of age in a time of unprecedented uncertainty. 

This is very different from all the other apocalyptic fiction I've read, but I liked it. It's much more literary than I expected. Since we're seeing things from the perspective of a child, we don't get as much information about the scientific side of things or how the Slowing is affecting the rest of the world. I was curious about those things, but it fits with the point of view and it let me use my imagination a little, which was fun. I usually don't care for inconclusive endings, but I felt like it worked really well in this novel. The whole thing, actually, just seemed to flow and fit together perfectly. It felt like a real story, like something that could really happen, and Julia felt like a real girl. I certainly related to her on several levels. That, and the beautiful writing, make it one that I'm going to be recommending to a lot of people. 

"The True Meaning of Smekday" by Adam Rex

423 pages

When twelve-year-old Gratuity ("Tip" to her friends) sets out to write five pages on "The True Meaning of Smekday" for the National Time Capsule contest, she realizes that her biggest problem is limiting her story to five pages. It all started when her mom started telling everyone that aliens were sending messages through a mole on the back of her neck. Tip and everyone else thought she'd gone off the deep end until Christmas Eve, when huge spaceships descended on the Earth. Then the aliens--known as the Boov--abducted Tip's mother, leaving her alone with her cat, Pig. Before long, the Boov had taken over and declared Earth a colony, named it "Smekland" (in honor of the glorious Captain Smek), and forced all Americans to relocate to Florida. In a small act of defiance, Tip decides to drive to Florida instead of riding in the Boov-sanctioned rocketpods. This last-minute road trip leads Tip on a journey that involves striking up an unlikely friendship with a Boov named J. Lo; traveling across the country in a hovercar called Slushious; finding her mother; and maybe just saving the world from yet another alien race, the bloodthirsty Gorg.

This is one of the best children's books I've read in a while. I love all the goofy randomness. Tip is feisty and totally lovable, and I love the way that she follows her heart and sticks up for her family and what she believes in. Definitely sends a good message. I loved J.Lo too--the little guy has a lot of heart. The plot goes all over the place and is completely ridiculous, but I think it's perfect for keeping kids on their toes. I just enjoyed the ride. I loved all the little pictures and comics, but I also listened to part of it on audio and it was fantastic. So basically you need to get the paper copy and the audio. You can thank me later!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

"Pandemonium" (Delirium #2) by Lauren Oliver

375 pages

In "Delirium," Lena finally escaped from the society that outlawed love, the world that would force her to have an operation to eliminate her ability to feel emotionally attached to other human beings. It cost her dearly--Alex didn't make it--but now she's finally free in the Wilds. Unfortunately, it turns out that life outside civilization is not all it's cracked up to be. The government is actively trying to eliminate the residents of the Wilds, and every day brings danger and shortages of food. As the New England winter approaches, Lena and her group of new friends have to head south for the winter. Along the way, Lena not only meets a new love interest in a most unlikely place but also learns some shocking information about her mother--and Alex.

I thought the whole premise of "Delirium" was a bit shaky--why would the government be so opposed to love? Even if it can occasionally have negative effects, I don't understand how they justify getting rid of it. Still, I was invested in the story enough to read the next book in the series, but I didn't like "Pandemonium" much more. I don't particularly care for Lena--she seems too angsty for my taste. There isn't enough action, and the shaky premise isn't explained any further. There's a love triangle, which I am tired of. Still, I am interested in what happens, so I'll probably read the last book in the trilogy. I'd recommend this series for people who like young adult romance and just want something a little different for the setting, but it's definitely not a good pick for hard-core scifi fans.

"World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War" by Max Brooks

342 pages

World War Z came incredibly close to eradicating the human race. Here, for the first time, the stories of the survivors and the fighters have been collected. From a six-year-old girl to a mentally handicapped woman to the leaders in the highest levels of the military, voices are shared. Everyone in the world--rich and poor, young and old--was fighting on the same side, and miraculously humanity prevailed. These stories offer a glimpse to how the zombie war was won...and what we lost along the way. 

This is one of my favorite zombie books, and I enjoyed it just as much when I read it for the second time. I think my favorite thing about it is the variety of perspectives. It imagines what a zombie apocalypse would be like for different people in different situations all over the world, which is fascinating. It seems like Brooks did his homework because it really reads like a collection of interviews from a variety of sources. Definitely a must-read for fans of zombie lit and horror in general. 

"Fever (Chemical Garden #2)" by Lauren DeStefano

341 pages

At the end of Wither, Rhine and Gabriel finally escaped from the home of the vicious Vaughn, who forced Rhine to become his son's third wife and used Gabriel as a servant. Now, in Fever, Rhine and Gabriel learn that their troubles are far from over. They fall right into a trap in the form of a twisted carnival whose ringmistress keeps watch over a menagerie of girls. Even when they eventually escape, they find that the outside world is far more perilous than they could have imagined. They are determined to get to Manhattan to find Rhine’s twin brother, Rowan. No matter what they do, however, they can’t seem to elude Vaughn, who is determined to bring Rhine back to the any means necessary.

This book isn't my favorite, but it kept me entertained. I'd probably like it more if I got to know the characters better, but I feel like I barely know them, especially Gabriel. There's plenty of action in this story, unlike the first book in the series, but sometimes I felt like it was just a lot running around without much of a purpose. I still have a lot of trouble with the main premise because it just doesn't make sense to me, but I'm going to give the series the benefit of the doubt and hope that more is explained later on. Despite its flaws, the story does make me interested in what's going to happen next. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

"Will Grayson, Will Grayson" by John Green and David Levithan

310 pages

In the middle of the night, two teenage boys named Will Grayson meet in a Chicago porn shop. How's that for a one-sentence summary? If I were going to expand upon that, I would say that these two Wills don't have much in common besides their name. The first Will Grayson (let's call him Will A) lives in Evanston with his workaholic doctor parents who care about him but don't have a lot of time for him. He's always felt like he's in the shadow of his larger-than-life (both literally and figuratively) best friend, Tiny Cooper. To paraphrase Will:  Tiny might not be the largest, gayest person in the world, but he is definitely the largest person who is really, really gay and the gayest person who is really, really large. Meanwhile, the other Will Grayson (Will B), who lives in Naperville,  is dealing with some tougher stuff. His dad left him alone with his mom years ago, and they've struggled to make ends meet ever since. He's got pretty severe clinical depression and, as if all that wasn't enough, he doesn't know how to tell his mom that he's gay. The only thing keeping him going is his online relationship with Isaac. When they finally decide to meet in person, Will B is shocked to arrive in Chicago and discover that the address Isaac gave him is a porn shop. Meanwhile, the Will A is in the city for a concert.  When his fake ID is spotted by the bouncer and his friends ditch him, he finds himself killing time in the porn store. Here the two Will Graysons run into each other, not knowing that their unlikely meeting will change both of their lives.

This is young adult literature--actually, literature, period--at its best. It's laugh-out-loud funny but it also gives you a lot to think about--mainly about what it means to be a friend. My favorite part of this story, as you might guess, is the characters. The Will Graysons are complex people with problems that readers can relate to. It's Tiny, however, who really steals the show. He's kind of self-centered, but he has a huge heart and he totally cracks me up. Green and Levithan work incredibly well together. They write alternating chapters (John Green writes Will A's perspective while Levithan writes from Will B's point of view), and this method gives each character a very unique voice. It doesn't throw off the pace, though, because the stories weave together so well. Also, it's nice to see a young adult novel with gay characters that isn't completely wrapped up in sexual orientation. Sometimes when a character being gay is all that propels a story, it makes it seem like that's all there is to their character. There's a lot more going on in Will Grayson, Will Grayson and it's a book I would recommend to almost anyone, gay or straight, teen or adult. 

Life As I Blow It

Life As I Blow It: Tales of Love, Life & Sex...Not Necessarily In That Order
by Sarah Colonna
239 pages

Sarah Colonna is a regular round table guest on "Chelsea Lately", the late night show on E! hosted by Chelsea Handler (whom I am a big fan of).  She also writes for the show and does stand up.  This book is her memoir, I guess, starting from when she grew up in Arkansas to trying to make it in LA as an actress/comedienne.

Sarah is pretty funny on the show, but I didn't really see that coming across in her book.  Her stories just kind of ramble together and she switches topics a lot.  Not that it was hard to follow, just that you're kind of left wondering, "wait, I thought you were talking about this?".  It's a good light read, but I wouldn't recommend it.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

"Daughter of Smoke and Bone" by Laini Taylor

417 pages

In some ways, Karou is a normal teenager. She loves drawing and hanging out with her best friend at their favorite coffee shop. But Karou has secrets, secrets that make her quite different from her friends. Like how she speaks many languages--not all of the human. How her blue hair is not dyed--it actually grows out of her head that way. And, most crazy of all, how her guardian is actually a demon who sends her on errands all over the globe. Like other teens, Karou is trying to figure out who she is. In her case, though, it's in more of the literal sense. Where did she come from? What is the purpose of her unusual powers? She's not an angel and she's not a demon, so what is she? These questions become even more urgent as a war stirs in the supernatural world. The arrival of a beautiful, haunted Akiva makes things even more complicated--especially when it becomes clear that he's on the other side of the conflict. 

I really got into this book. There's something engrossing about the mysterious, nothing-what-it-seems world that Karou lives in. I had trouble following parts of this story--there's a lot of jumping around and not enough explanation about some things as I would like. Since it's part of a series, though, I don't hold that against it too much. I was somewhat annoyed by the romance aspect of the story. I'm not a fan of the star-crossed lovers thing, so I didn't really care whether Karou and Akiva got together. I do, however, love Karou; she's complicated, curious, and strong, which makes for a fascinating character I can root for. I also like how the book mixes up traditional ideas about good guys and bad guys--in this case, both the angels and the demons have positive and negative qualities. That, combined with the intriguing setting, sets up a series that I look forward to finishing.