Saturday, December 27, 2014

Unmade - A Interesting Mesh of Fun and Excitement


Title: Unmade (Entangled #2)
Author: Amy Rose Capetta
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers 1/13/15

Unmade is book two in the Entangled series and really needs to be read in order.  It continues the story of Cade and her friends as they try to defeat the Unmakers and find a new home for the humans.  It is very reminiscent of Battlestar Galactica at times with a little bit of Firefly thrown in when it comes to the crew.

There is some tragedy - people die that I really, really didn't want to die and it tears the remainder of the crew apart.  At times it went a little over the top with the drama, especially with Mother - but this does allow us to see a different side to many people, a darker emotional side that we really didn't know existed at first.

This is a great sci-fi series for young adults that may be new to the genre.  The types characters and a lot of the emotional concepts will be familiar to them, while the story will show them how much fun it can be to visit new an far away places.

*ARC provided by Amazon Vine in exchange for an honest review*

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Burn Brightly


Title:  All The Bright Places
Author: Jennifer Niven
Publisher: Knopf  1/6/15



Violet is the popular girl. Finch is the school freak.  Two people who would never so much as look at each other.  Until the day they both end up on the same tower, contemplating suicide.  And what starts as an ending turns out to be a beginning, but can the darkness be held at bay?


*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*

I've just finished All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven.  My eyes are red.  There's crumpled up tissue in the trash can.  I used it to wipe my eyes.  I'm even sniffling as I type.

All the Bright Places reduced me to tears.  

It's a bit challenging to write this review for a couple of reasons.  First, I don't want to spoil it for you.  Second, because I'm still feeling very emotional about it.   I am not a weepy person.  I read horror and butt-kicking action novels.  Books where things go boom.  I don't cry at books!

This is a smart, edgy, contemporary YA novel.  It's got so much sweetness and sadness that it hurts to read it at times.  About halfway through the novel, I took a break and read something else.  I knew that there was simply no way that the book didn't contain some sort of heartbreak.  And boy did it.  Heartbreak upon heartbreak mixed with love and hope.

The story is simply beautiful.  And oh, I don't want my daughter to grow up to be one of these teens. And I don't want to be these parents.

When I was a teen, I would have devoured this book.  Funny as it seems since he's a guy, Finch is like the Sylvia Plath of a new generation.  He burns brightly, but still burns.

I'm drained.  I don't think I'll read this book again, simply because I can't take it.  But I want everyone I know to read it.  And then breathe.



Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Christmas cookie books I love

This is the month for baking cookies.  Even if you rarely eat sweets, chances are that you make cookies some time in December.  I own a shocking number of baking books and a lot of them are specifically cookie cookbooks.  But I have a couple "go to" books for Christmas baking.

I have been a big fan of Rose Levy Beranbaum since The Cake Bible came out (that was my very first baking book) and so Rose's Christmas Cookies was my first cookie specific cookbook.  It has only 60 recipes so it is not an all-purpose cookie book.  But there are good reasons to like this book.  First, she gives measurements by weight (ounces and grams) in addition to volume -- measuring by weight will give you better results.  Second, there is a color picture for every recipe and detailed illustrations for some of the more technical creations (like the gingerbread Cathedral of Notre Dame).  And last but not least, it has some great classic Christmas cookie recipes that I love.  I haven't yet baked my way through all the recipes but have made quite a few.  I made the Mexican Wedding Cakes (aka Russian Tea Cakes) for my friend's cookie exchange a couple weeks ago.  And I use her Peanut Butter and Jelly Jewels recipe to make Peanut Butter Blossoms because her recipe is so much better than the usual one.  There is even a recipe for Bone a Fidos -- dog cookies that my Mom's dog loved.  This is a cookie book that belongs on every baker's shelf.

My church has a cookie sale every November to raise money for some ministry projects and it is my excuse to go a little crazy with baking cookies.  Most years I make between 50 and 150 dozen cookies for the sale.  At those numbers you can't get too fancy and I don't want the ingredients to cost more than they charge for a dozen cookies so I need some more basic recipes.  Icebox cookies -- where you make and chill cylinders of dough, then slice and bake -- are an efficient way to make a lot of cookies.  I can make the dough ahead of time then have a marathon baking session in the church's commercial kitchen.  So for my cookie sale baking, I rely on Taste of Home Cookies which has 620 recipes.  These are the kind of recipes your mother or neighbor would make and most have been submitted by readers of the Taste of Home magazine.  Unlike the lengthy and detailed recipes that Ms. Beranbaum writes, these are short and simple and measurements are given only by volume.  It gives me a lot of varieties of cookies to make for the sale and I usually work my way through the "slice & bake" section.  The recipe for Double Delights is a perpetual favorite.  You make a vanilla dough with chocolate chips and nuts and a chocolate dough with white chocolate chips and nuts then slice each cylinder in half lengthwise and put one half of each flavor together.  Yum!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Fans of Jeremy Bishop's Jane Harper series need to make some noise!

I hate when I get hooked on a book series only to find out that the publisher may not think it has sold enough to be worth continuing.  Bad enough when each book in the series stands more or less alone, but really frustrating when the last book leaves you with a bombshell cliffhanger ending!

Right now, this is how I feel about the Jane Harper series written by Jeremy Bishop (pen name for Jeremy Robinson).  He self-published the first book, The Sentinel and in 2013 the Amazon imprint 47North picked up that book plus the second book in the series, The Raven.  The third book is in limbo.

I need more Jane Harper and if you like feisty sarcastic ass-kicking zombie-fighting heroines, you need more Jane too.  Not to mention that these are not your stereotypical slow stupid shuffling zombies.  The zombies in The Sentinel are ancient Viking zombies awakened on an island off Greenland.

And the zombies only get better in The Raven.  Two words:  zombie whales.  Zombie. Whales.

I don't want to spoil the book so I'll just say that you really have to experience yourself the awesomeness of zombie whales.  And then there is the bombshell dropped in the last sentence that makes me want that third book so much.


So just as Peter Pan called on all the children in the world to clap their hands and believe to save Tinkerbell, Jane Harper needs all the zombie book fans to tell 47North they want more Jane.  Tweet them (@AmazonPub) or email them (47north-pr@amazon.com). Make some noise so we can get the third book.

And if you haven't read the Jane Harper series, do yourself a favor and read them now.  Zombie Vikings.  Zombie whales.

I received an ARC of The Raven free from Amazon's Vine program in exchange for a review.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Hey, Author...Yes, You. Your Book Needs an Ending!

Note:  Most of the books in this photo are keepers that I 
have NOT wanted to throw against a wall. 
Most



I'm noticing a theme in some of my reviews lately.   As every single book out there becomes part of The Dreaded Trilogy (okay, slight exaggeration, but a lot of them!), authors aren't ending their books. 

I'm reading along at a fevered pace.  It's epic.  I love the hero and hate the villain.  I'm hoping that YA girl chooses boy B (or C or D) or that she defeats the evil queen.  I am excited.  Suddenly, our heroine races through the castle.  She's about to confront the baddie.  The baddie sees her and smiles and…

Wait a second.  Where's the next page?

If I'm reading a physical book, I'm likely throwing the book against a wall.  If it's on Kindle, I lovingly lower my Kindle before muttering curses.  And then I write my review.  And can you guess what happens next?  Five stars becomes two or three stars because instead of ending the book feeling like I need a cigarette or a drink, I'm irritated with the author. Okay, I don't actually smoke, but you know what I mean. I feel cheated. 

The Art of the Cliffhanger is one that needs studying by many of today's authors.

I'm not sure if what I'm writing here is a rant or more of a plea.  Tie up most of the loose ends.  Yes, you can leave one or two open for the next book, but the reader should feel like something - anything - was concluded in this book. 

You see, I'm not only investing my money and time in your book, I'm investing my heart and soul.  You've left me laughing, gasping, or crying.  I'm riding this journey with you.  And I deserve an ending…even if it isn't happy.

And in exchange, I promise that I won't throw your book against the wall!


DECEMBER'S Most SQUEEE-Worthy Book

There were many good books that came out as Advanced Reading Copies this month, and there are many excellent books coming to shelves near you.   

But by general hands-up I think I can safely say that for the Unrepentant Bibliovores that Pierce Brown's GOLDEN SON was the hottest, most squee worthy ARC for December.

bookcover of GOLDEN SON (Red Rising #2) by Pierce Brown

Now we need to get down to devouring and savoring it.


Bloodydamn!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Connect...Or Else!



Author:  David Jacob Knight
Publisher:  DJK


* Note: Reader copy provided by the authors for impartial review.

Steve's life isn't what it used to be.  His wife died from cancer and his relationship with his kids seems to be dying along with it.  When the phone company comes to town, giving everyone in town a new phone called a Tether, it seems like a godsend. 

Students thrive as information is at their fingertips.  The local police can get an instant background check (and lie detector and breathalyzer) immediately.  Instant popularity apps? Check!  An X-ray feature so that you can see if students in school have weapons?  Check!  Track your children anywhere?  Check!

But it turns out the connection may be from a very darker place as everyone Steve knows seems to descend into some sort of horrific madness.

The Phone Company mixes the surreal social conscious horror of Bentley Little, with the epic, in depth eeriness of Stephen King.   While certainly ratcheted up a level or two, the things The Phone Company's Tether can do in this book are scarily plausible.  In fact, the social commentary on our current world - a world where 'likes' matter more than actual opinion and where your entire social life is based on online 'friends' - is biting, timely, and all too accurate.

Now, I used the word epic before and that's not hyperbole.  This is one of those great big reads that leaves you feeling like you've entered another world for a while.  It's a little gruesome in parts, while not being splatter-filled, and should even please those folks who are new to modern horror.

An excellent read and highly recommended!


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Review: THE BOY WHO DREW MONSTERS

bookcover of THE BOY WHO DREW MONSTERS  by Keith Donohue
3.43 STARS — 571 GoodReaders

THE BOY WHO DREW MONSTERS is an interesting book. It's part horror novel and part drama. The setting is a small island. The sort of place where the population explodes during the summer months, but where homes can be isolated and alone during the winter.

Involved in the story are two families. Both have only children who are boys, but there's a tremendous difference between the two tweens as one has been diagnosed as having Aspergers Syndrome.

This latter comes into play as it becomes a source of friction between the boys. Nick, the boy without Aspergers, is beginning to feel oppressed by their friendship which frequently seems a one-way street.  And the friction is not relegated to just the boys. As strange unexplained events begin to creep into their lives, both marriages are stressed, and we find out that there were infidelities between the couples.

-------------------------------------------------------
From Kirkus Review:
Jack's parents and Nick are beginning to hear and see things that seem otherworldly, and it becomes clear that Jack's drawings reflect, or perhaps even create, the odd sounds and creatures. His parents, Tim and Holly, baffled by the happenings and frightened by the cracks in their marriage, try desperately to solve the growing mysteries.A sterling example of the new breed of horror: unnerving and internal with just the right number of bumps in the night.
-------------------------------------------------------

The part of this book that really worked for me was not the horror. I never found this book scary or even tense. What I did like was the mystery of figuring out where the monsters were coming from and why they were there. What drew them from the old sunk wreckage, and why were the dead were tormenting the boys and their families.

What I actually loved was the backstory. I think Donohue perfectly caught the difficulties and emotion that comes from of dealing with a child who is 'different'. He captures the parents' anguish about not being able to help their child-- to 'fix' their child. And I felt for Jack's parents. How difficult it must be to have 'well meaning' strangers make the situation worse with their thoughtless comments.

Soooo.... good characters with a classically style horror/mystery attempt.  I found it an enjoyable read but those looking for gory horror are going to be disappointed .

**More Adult themed and nuanced.  This book is suitable for the older YA crowd.

Pam~


THE BOY WHO DREW MONSTERS
by Keith Donohue

**all ratings from GoodReads 

Reading Information:
Page Count: 288
--See Excerpt here

Excerpt: THE BOY WHO DREW MONSTERS

THE BOY WHO DREW MONSTERS
by Keith Donohue

One

A pale yellow sun hung low in the salt sky. Winter had blown in overnight, and the cold gave an air of lonesomeness to the empty roads and deserted vacation homes. Tim loved the dying light of December and the absence of the people and set about his business with a kind of gleeful freedom. He had a dozen properties to take care of in the village and another dozen scattered on the eastern edge of the peninsula, and he had worked his way through three of the four homes on his list for the day with not a soul to bother him.


Monday, December 8, 2014

From Cornfields to Taxidermied Cats, Eccentricity Rules in Kathleen Hale's "No One Else Can Have You"


Earlier this autumn, Kathleen Hale made headlines for all the wrong reasons: not for her mad writing skillz or even the fabulously witty cover of her debut YA novel, but for her inability to cope with a Twitter comment and a negative review on Goodreads. Indeed, Hale began to conflate all dislike of her book with this single reviewer, "Blythe Harris", and became obsessed by the woman she seems herself to identified as her critic in chief. Online stalking turned to the real thing -- and then Hale, in apparent bid for understanding and sympathy, wrote about it. Even then, she didn't seem to understand just what she had done wrong; surely what mattered more than her stalking of a reviewer, Hale argued, was the possibility that that reviewer had chosen to operate under a pseudonym? Even now, six months later, the mere mention of Hale's name is still enough to ignite frenzied debate in the blogosphere.

At the time the hullabaloo broke lose, a number of copies of Hale's novel, No One Else Can Have You, were still available for members of Amazon's Vine review community to request. Since all of the members of this group blog are part of that community, we decided it would be a great opportunity to make up our own minds about the book at the heart of the controversy. Is is as dire as "Blythe" suggested? Is it subversively witty and creative? Or does it fall somewhere it between: just another edgy YA novel trying to find an audience in an increasingly crowded market?

We've read it, and rather than just post mini reviews, we though we'd have a book circle-style discussion about what worked for us -- and what didn't. Will we want to read Hale's new novel (due out in 2015) Nothing Bad Is Going to Happen? More than enough has been written and said about the "author behaving badly"; we're here to talk about the book. (Some of us blog using our own names; some, using pseudonyms or incomplete names. Whether or not we choose to use our real names has no impact on our decision to share our honest opinions about this, or any other books that we review on this blog.) So, let the discussion begin...

::

Suzanne: So, who found the Wisconsin setting convincing? I've heard lots of comparisons to the Coen brothers and Fargo; some say it's a similarly exaggerated view of small towns in the Midwest.

Sandy Kay: I grew up in a small town in Minnesota,  which is (for the geographically challenged) right next door to Wisconsin.  I loved Fargo and thought it was hilarious. I think the author was going for that same vibe but she doesn't have the skill to pull it off. The setting and characters in this book fell completely flat and I found myself being offended on behalf of my neighboring Cheeseheads.

JWP: As a Minnesotan who is part naturalized Wisconsinite due to geography and school association, I too found myself shaking my head at the depiction of Friendship, WI (a place that really exists, though likely not as the novel presents it just like Fargo is not in MN, but North Dakota). The part that makes less sense to me the more I think about it is actually the corn chopping that occurs at the beginning of the book. Considering the amount of farmers who rely on their crops for income, I don't feel any farmer would allow that to happen. It had zero impact on the investigation as the author presented it and added nothing to the plot.

Sandy Kay:  I completely agree about the corn chopping. It would never happen.

Jasmyn: Having visited small town Wisconsin many times, I can say that there are a few people out there that fit the stereotypes found in the book. However, finding a whole town full of nothing but?  That was a little too hard to believe. I did think it was very reminiscent of the movie Fargo.  The corn chopping blew my mind as well. So, they chopped it early (meaning it wasn't ready) and then had a fundraiser to sell it?  Made no sense.

Outlaw:  Specific to the Wisconsin 'rubes' in the book, I actually read the book long before the controversy and one of the main points in my review was that I felt folks from Wisconsin would be terribly insulted by the book.  That said, while the book was a little too quirky at times, I largely enjoyed it.

 Silea: I enjoyed the scenery descriptions, like the cornfield at the center of town, though I can't speak to any accuracy. I, too, read the book well before the excrement hit the fan, but even back then I thought that the author made nearly everyone in the town sound like they'd been dropped on their heads a few times as children. If she were describing my hometown, I'd have been offended.

Suzanne: I think my main problem with the book was what to me felt like excessive quirkiness. I loved the fact that Hale had such a distinctive voice, but everything was quirky and slightly off kilter, as if seen through one of those wacky carnival mirrors. I realize that was her choice, but it didn't work for me as a reader. It was exhausting.

Pam: The book reminded me of Twin Peaks, and I think the intent was theater of the absurd. So I don't think it was over-the-top.  Than again, I liked Green Acres.

Sandy Kay: I was ambivalent about the main character, Kippy.  I really like the idea of a socially awkward protagonist who has experienced a lot of tragic loss, but she never clicked for me. Was I just letting my feelings about the author bleed over onto the character?

JWP: I did wonder if Kippy was a weird version of a Mary Sue at times, so maybe there was character-author bleed over. It's very difficult to write a story and not have some connection to your main characters in particular.

Jasmyn: Kippy seemed like yet another overblown stereotype of every Young Adult protagonist out there. She had suffered loss, was an awkward and unpopular teenager, was smarter than the adults, had no friends, and was a whiz at school. It seemed very overdone. There was so much wrong with the girl's life that I wasn't able to really see how she felt about any one part of it.

Silea: Kippy felt very Mary-Sue to me. She was the only smart person in town, for starters. And when she reads her dead Best Friend's diary and is unfazed by the contents? That rang so utterly false.

Suzanne: I liked several elements of Kippy -- her intelligence and her sass. She wonders why she isn't getting the memos about "coordinated grief gear" when the rest of her classmates (throwing themselves into group mourning for a girl they didn't know in life) all show up in black, and says that when she thinks about vigils, "I think of a hundred ponytails bursting into flames".


Sandy Kay: I read this book after all the publicity about the author and wonder if that colored my perceptions. Perhaps I would have disliked the book less without all the background drama. Did knowing about the author affect how you felt about the book?

JWP:  I try to remain objective toward authors as much as possible because, as a creative writing major in undergrad, I understand the process of putting a story together and the many years it can take to make it click. What colored my reading more was the obvious lack of research and understanding in regard to what small town life is really like.

Jasmyn:  I actually found I enjoyed it more than I had expected after reading so much about how people didn't like it.  Perhaps I set my expectations low enough that it managed to exceed them?  I try hard to be objective, but once you know something or hear an opinion, it's hard not to consider that when reading the book. This story actually showed some potential. It needed a lot of work, mostly in the character development area, but I did find some redeeming qualities.

Suzanne: Nope. I put that behind me as soon as I started reading the book. I simply wanted to form my own opinion. The only element of the fracas that I wondered about was why Hale's loathed critic disliked the book as violently as she did. I didn't like it all that much, but to describe as the worst book I'd read this year? It didn't come close. She can write, and has a distinctive voice: talents a lot of writers lack.

Silea: I read it well before the drama and I thought it was dreadful. I think I said something to the effect that it seemed like it was written by a teenager, not for teenagers. The whole 'adults are stupid and ignore all the clever things teenagers think of' just had me seething by the end.

JWP: I often felt that the adults in Kippy's life were more caricature than characters and present only for the purposes of thwarting her investigative attempts. Thoughts regarding the depiction of law enforcement/adults in positions of authority?

Jasmyn:  I hated the law enforcement in the book.  They were the worst part of the overly stereotyped characters, in my opinion. The very first scene had me wanting to throw the book solely on the dialog from the officer. For the entire police force to be that inept, and the entire town to just go along with it, was the most unbelievable part of the story for me.

Suzanne: That was infuriating, because it required complete suspension of disbelief on the reader's part. Even knowing that this is aimed at YA readers prepared to believe that all adults are blind idiots and fools, a savvy author knows how to make a character like the sheriff blind in the right way -- to the realities of teenage life, not to reality.

Silea: The presentation of the sheriff was the most annoying and offensive part of the entire book. I almost sympathized with him at first, when he chose a villain and ignored evidence that contradicted the contrived story that implicated him. But later, Kippy comes to the sheriff with evidence that implicates the chosen suspect, and the sheriff brushes her off because she's a kid.

Sandy Kay: The character of Jim Steele worked for me as a caricature because he was close enough to real life to be funny. I once worked with a lawyer whose office was packed with taxidermied animals. Also, Steele's New York attitude in small town Wisconsin amused me. And no one objects to lawyers portrayed as arrogant idiots!

Suzanne: I got so sick of the constant references to dead, taxidermied animals....

JWP: For some reason I feel like Jim Steele should have been a pro wrestler.  The names for me are somewhat problematic in their excessive oddness.  Colt Widdacombe feels like a bad pun or inside joke that I'm not getting.

Jasmyn:  Let's not just criticize.  Was there anything that stood out that you enjoyed about the story: I actually enjoyed the mystery/sleuthing part of the book.  It reminded me of a lot of the teenager turned detective stories out there. She could have included a few hints about who the bad guy was - it did come out of nowhere, but watching Kippy follow the trail of clues was the best part.  I also enjoyed her stay at the hospital and her support group. I don't know if it was intended to be comedic but those scenes really had me grinning and chuckling.

Suzanne: I don't think that it came out of nowhere. Look at the different responses to accidents involving dead animals and attitudes to death in general. I was pretty clear as to who I thought the killer was by halfway through, even though the motivation (other than the obvious) was lacking.

JWP: I like Davey. He's damaged but he's also the one thing that really helps Kippy connect to what's happening and encourages her when no one else will. I would argue that he's the most 'real' character in the book.  I think I would have preferred him to be the main character. Also, I do think the book shows potential and the author has a sense of how to construct a story, but needed more rewrite time to develop everything better. Even though I was vastly disappointed by the suddenness of the reveal and that I felt like the final third was disconnected from the rest of the story, there was some sense of suspense throughout. Unfortunately, for me, the humor often fell short, but I can appreciate the attempt to make this a quirky, small-town tale.

Suzanne: Agreed; I loved the character of Davey. He was easily the most real and the most interesting. Yes, he was quirky, but in a good way. And vivid. For me, he was the most successful part of the entire novel.

Jasmyn: Davey was definitely a great and very well-written character.  He seemed to be the most developed in the entire book. If Kippy could have been more rounded and written with a depth similar to Davey's she would have really shone.

Pam: My favorite character was actually the diary. I found it hysterical that Kippy was caught off guard by her friend's disdain.  By the way, I seem to recall a similar use of diary in another novel.  Anyone recall what it might be? (Silea: Harry Potter? Wait, no...)

Suzanne: So, who will read Hale's new book, which will be out next year? I think I'll probably pass, although I'll be doing so based on the exaggerated eccentricities of the characters and the disappointments of the plot here, rather than the hullabaloo.

From Kathleen Hale, "Am I Being Catfished?"
The Guardian, October 18, 2014
Pam:  I won't be reading it. Reading this present book was an experiment, but I feel strongly about the inappropriate nature of her behavior. Strongly enough that I've actually deleted my reviews of Robin Wasserman's books on GoodReads because she thought Hale's behavior was okay.

Silea: I wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole. I actively disliked her first book, and that alone is reason for me to ignore any future publications. But this is an author who stalked someone based on a single tweet. The rest was confabulation and confusion. I'm not sufficiently scared of her to delete my existing review (or to not comment here), but I'm cutting my losses.

Sandy Kay: I'll pass on the next one as well -- not because of Hale's behavior but because I didn't like this book.

JWP: Undetermined.  Hale showed she has potential, but I think she needs something that's not as much of  a stretch for her talents as No One Else Can Have You obviously was at times.

Blog Readers: What are your thoughts on the book? Join the discussion, in the comments section, below!


FTC Disclosure: Participants in this discussion received an advance review copy of the book from the publisher via the Amazon Vine program in exchange for a review containing our honest opinions. Our individual reviews may be found on the book's page on Amazon.com.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

A great holiday gift idea for younger children: "The Cat, The Dog, Little Red, The Exploding Eggs, the Wolf, and Grandma" by Diane and Christyan Fox

Two things make me love a children's book:  an offbeat sense of humor and the opportunity to use funny voices while reading it aloud.  This book succeeds on both counts and will amuse adults as much as -- perhaps even more than -- their children.  I'm not a big fan of the overly sweet and sincere types of children's books and this one just hit my funny bone.  I laughed out loud in the children's section of the library the first time I read it.  And book pusher that I am, I forced it onto a father who was there looking at books with his children.  As part of my evil plan to ensure that every child gets a book for the holiday season, I suggest this would make a delightful gift!

Although this book is ostensibly about Little Red Riding Hood, it is really about the two main characters:  Cat and Dog.  Cat is a bit of a superior know-it-all and Dog is an overly enthusiastic goofball. Cat is reading -- or trying to read -- the story of Little Red Riding Hood to the Dog.  But Dog loves stories about super heroes and super villains and exasperates Cat with his constant interruptions and questions. Nevertheless, Dog's recap of the story after Cat finally gets to the end makes a lot of sense!  The illustrations are simple but perfectly fit the story and the text is hilarious.

I wondered if children would find this book as funny as I did, so I loaned it to a co-worker for a weekend to see how her four-year-old daughter liked it.  They read it every night. Her daughter thought it was hilarious and had to tell her Grandpa about the exploding eggs and now my co-worker thinks she might have to buy it for Christmas.  I think that is an excellent idea!

Because Cat and Dog are such characters, this book gives great opportunities to pull out some funny voices when you read it aloud.  It really begs to be read with distinctly different voices for Cat and Dog -- preferably ones that fit their personalities in the book.  It will enhance the reading experience.  There is a lot of back and forth between the two characters and the Dog is constantly interrupting the Cat so the different voices will help clarify the conversational flow as you read aloud.  (And be really fun.)

I received a free copy of this book through the Amazon Vine program in exchange for my honest  review.


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Reconnaissance - When Sci-Fi Meets YA the Right Way

Reconnaissance (Paradise Reclaimed #2) by Aubrie Dionne

Title: Reconnaissance (Paradise Reclaimed #2)
Author: Aubrie Dionne
Publisher: Inkspell Publishing 4/5/13

Nova Williams has lost her one shot at Lieutenant hood and at love. Lieutenant Crophaven has promoted her rival, Andromeda, all because her lifemate, Sirius, sacrificed their mission to win back Andromeda’s love.

While sneaking out to prove Andromeda is a fake, Nova finds an alien ship hovering over their colony. Lieutenant Crophaven assigns her to a reconnaissance mission, giving her a second chance to redeem herself. Sirius must fly her and a research team to the vessel to decide if they are a threat. Thrown together with the lifemate that betrayed her, she battles with her own jealousy while her team battles for their lives.

Can she forgive Sirius in order to save her team and warn her colony?

********************

This was an amazing sequel. The story has a lot of classic science fiction elements paired with a great cast of main characters. Book one flows directly into book two with a shift in perspectives from Andromeda to Nova - rivals since school. There is a hint of a love triangle - but it dissolves very quickly and is more of a school age crush finally ending than anything.

Most of the story takes place on the alien ship that Nova has discovered hanging out nearby. These aliens are not nice creatures. They were written brilliantly and gave me the heebie-jeebies everytime that skittered (yes, they skitter) into a room or scene. There was quite a bit of suspense as Nova and Sirius explore the ship and I loved every word of it.

The romance was really on the back burner most of the time. I knew it was there hovering in the background waiting for the right time to pop up again. It was nice not having teenage love shoved in my face every few minutes. I would highly recommend this to any sci-fi YA lovers out there.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Parallel Books in Parallel Universes - The Duplexity

I really hoped i'd like this book, as both the plot and the meta-plot (two books, each tracing one side of the universe-swap) appeal to me.

I didn't just like it. I loved it. Even the minute bits like a girl-scientist, a platonic hetero-friendship, a boy-artist, all the stuff that never seems to make its way into YA fiction felt very natural here. And yes, there was an unlikely romance that developed quickly, but it wasn't just gazing into each other's eyes and knowing instantly that they were soul mates; they actually had to get to know each other first. And the icing on the cake: no forced love triangle! In fact, no love triangle at all!

The mystery of what the heck happened to Danny weaves into Eevee's own personal renaissance to make a story that just has a life of its own. Real world obligations prevented me from reading it all in one sitting, but i totally could have. And when the sequel comes out, i'll call in sick if i have to.

Because if there's one thing wrong with this story, it's that the whole time i wished i was reading Part 2. Dystopia Danny coming to a reality that seems a lot like ours was riveting, but i'm twice as excited to read about Slacker Danny landing in dystopia.



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Now That You're Here (Duplexity Part 1) 
Author: Amy Nichols
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (December 9, 2014) 
Received free of charge from the Amazon Vine program

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Best Books of 2014

Just in time for the holiday season, here are some of our bloggers' picks for the best fiction and non-fiction books of 2014. Rest assured, we agonized over these choices. Please tell us why you agree or disagree in the comments. And if you think there's a book we overlooked, let us know!

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Silea's picks:

Fiction: Red Rising, by Pierce Brown
This book starts with a gut-punch and never lets go. While relying on many of the tropes now common in YA fiction (member of a suppressed class trying to bring the system down, etc), it manages to be entirely unique.


Non-fiction: The Vinedresser's Notebook, by Judith Sutera
This book is simple, meditative, and contemplative, based primarily on grape vine metaphors to teach patience and humility. Though short, it's powerful. I don't believe it's possible to read this book and not become a better person in the process.

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Suzanne's Picks

Fiction: An Unnecessary Woman, by Rabih Alameddine:
Aaliya isn't the most likable fictional character: she shuns her neighbors, preferring books to reality. But then her reality is Beirut, through civil war, chaos and lots of family upheaval. Aaliya, however, is an astute, wry observer of those realities, and Alameddine is a lyrical writer: the combination has made the novel, one of the first I read this year, one of the most memorable and my favorite.


Non-fiction: A Spy Among Friends, by Ben Macintyre
Focusing on Kim Philby, one of the British spies whose betrayals rocked the British establishment in the 1950s and 1960s, this takes a different approach to the story, telling the tale through the eyes of Nicholas Elliottt, Philby's closest friend in MI6. For Elliott, Philby's betrayal was more than just treason: it was a personal violation of the most profound kind. The book is both a fast-paced spy yarn and a heartbreaking tale of betrayal and misery.

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JWP's Picks

Fiction: Crossover, by Kwame Alexander
Josh Bell thinks his school year is going to be all about basketball and how amazing he and his twin brother can be on the court, but life has something else in store.  His words zing off the page showing how great poetry can be to illustrate life's good and bad moments. 

Non-fiction: Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies, by Lawrence Goldstone
A title with a little bit of everything, Goldstone makes the history of heavier than air flight available to even the least scientific of minds.  Thrills, chills, spills and daredevils from the golden age of early aviation all highlight the battle to get airplanes and their inventors off the ground. 

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Dunyazad's Picks

Fiction: The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber
I judge the quality of a novel by how much I wish I could be reading it when I'm doing other things. In this case, those other things included visiting friends for the weekend and attending the National Book Festival, but I still found myself sneaking out this book to read a few pages whenever I could. The story of a missionary witnessing to aliens on another planet while his wife experiences apocalyptic conditions back on earth was unlike anything I've read before.

Non-Fiction: How We Learn, by Benedict Carey
This is probably the non-fiction book that's had the most real impact on my life this year. It's a fascinating synthesis of recent and not-so-recent findings in learning science, or in practical terms, a book full of evidence-based suggestions for how to learn more effectively and efficiently. Besides the helpful ideas themselves, I found it extremely encouraging just to read that forgetting is not the enemy of learning, that there are specific techniques that make it easier to remember foreign vocabulary within a reasonable time frame, and so on. This book gives me reason to hope that I'm nowhere near the limits of my abilities yet.

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TakingaDayOff's Picks


Fiction: My Wish List, by Gregoire Delacourt
This book asks an unoriginal question (What if you won the lottery?) and answers it in a completely original way. A compact story that felt simultaneously surprising and inevitable.


Non-Fiction:  The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading, by Phyllis Rose
A book in which reading a random shelf of library books becomes a discussion about book covers, undiscovered authors, blurbs, how libraries decide which books to discard, dog training, and occasionally, literature. The Shelf combined two of my favorite topics, books about books and harebrained schemes, brilliantly.



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Sandy Kay's picks

 Fiction: Red Rising, by Pierce Brown
If you mixed together a dash each of Lord of the Flies, Hunger Games, Hogwarts Academy, and Roman history and set it hundreds of years in the future you might come up with this book. But it is fresh and exciting even with all those familiar elements. I could barely put it down and can't wait for the next book in this trilogy due in January 2015.

Nonfiction: Dear Luke, We Need to Talk, Darth: And Other Pop Culture Correspondences, by John Moe
I read mostly for entertainment so don't do much nonfiction. This collection of John Moe's imagined letters, e-mails, text messages, and other correspondence behind some favorite pop culture references made me laugh. 

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CK's picks

Front Cover: THE SECRET OF MAGIC by Deborah Johnson. Courtesy Penguin PutnamFiction: The Secret of Magic, by Deborah Johnson
Deborah Johnson stole my heart back in January with The Secret of Magic, a masterful interweaving of tradition, resilience, injustice, idealism, and respect. In impeccably measured prose that is all the more beautiful for being unassuming, Johnson introduces us to an idealistic young lawyer, a gentle and righteous father, and the author whose words have impacted both their lives. Even as she evokes the tensions of the post-WWII South, she also layers in such talismans as ladybugs, mistletoe, and a mailbox full of bluebirds. These and many other moments sing of simplicity while they hint at deeper meaning. 

Non-fiction: The Nazis Next Door, by Eric Lichtblau
Front Cover; THE NAZIS NEXT DOOR by ERIC LICHTBLAU. Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Coincidentally, my other selection also centers on events in the U.S. just after WWII. Eric Lichtblau's The Nazis Next Door: How America Became a Safe Haven for Hitler's Men is a thorough, professional, and incredibly frustrating exploration of the warm welcome the U.S. government extended to a number of people involved in the German war effort. This book is an implicit indictment of the choices some members of our government made that ran counter to the tenets on which we like to think the social contract of our country exists. When you tackle this worthwhile book, give yourself permission to partake of it in 50- to 60-page increments. 



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Note: Most, if not all, of these were received as ARCs through the Amazon Vine program. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Woman as Object in Sergei Lukyanenko's The Genome

Title: The Genome
Author: Sergei Lukyanenko
Publication Date: 12 December 2014

Note: ARC received via Amazon Vine program

*Warning: Contains potential spoilers throughout*

Sergei Lukyanenko’s The Genome is classified as science fiction and probably best considered under the speculative fiction label.  The story of Alex, who finds himself the captain of a spaceship that takes non-human species on tours and on which everyone seems to have a secret, is told largely through dialogue.  This type of writing should provide the author the ability to make each character unique and make them sound like rounded people.  Instead, the dialogue often reinforces the one dimensionality of the characters by not allowing us, the readers, to observe their actions.  The lack of dimensionality may be due, at least in part, to the fact that the majority of the characters are speshes.  That is, people who have been genetically altered for certain tasks.  Alex, the main character, is a pilot spesh whose main abilities are described as piloting space craft and keeping the occupants of the craft safe.  He is, we are told, incapable of love as a result of these specializations.

Lukyanenko’s book has a problem with all the characters, but women in particular.  Of the two females that play the largest part in the narrative, neither manages to rise above the need for a man or escape Alex’s need for occasional sexual gratification.  To be fair, even the male characters in the book are fairly one-dimensional and no one outside of Alex seems present other than to help Alex’s emotional journey get from point A to point B.  However, portrayal of two of the women is particularly problematic considering they have the most specializations of anyone in the novel.

First, let us consider the doctor and stereotypical large black woman, Janet.  Yes, that is how the book describes her when her physical appearance actually comes up.  Despite her various specializations (she is part of Alex’s crew for her capabilities as a doctor but lists four others), Janet’s main problem is that she apparently needs a man by the end of the book.  When we first meet her she is a bit opinionated and may be trouble in the event of non-human species coming aboard the ship because of her past role as an executioner-spesh.  She even assists Alex with a dilemma in her role as doctor early on, but sometime after having sex with Alex that role is no longer of consequence. 

The penultimate sequence in which we learn anything about Janet illustrates the dilemma of her going from being a doctor and having opinions and struggling with her ingrained dislike of non-humans to her apparent need for male affection.  Alex, as peeping tom, watches her attempt to seduce the now confused homosexual character Puck.  The author makes a point that she is completely naked while Puck is only half so.  The scene is meant to show that Alex’s emotional abilities have changed from the beginning of the book and that he moving beyond just having sex for gratification.  However, even he thinks of her as a sexual object, something to be observed and desired for her body instead of her spesh abilities.  If her early role was to be a co-conspirator, her later role is that of satisfying a man’s desires even if he does not know what those are.

This brings us to Kim, a fourteen-year-old nymphet.  While the opening chapter is one of the best and introduces Alex to Kim and both to us readers, it, too, is not without challenges when taken in context of the whole book.  Age withstanding, Alex is thrown immediately into caring for her when he realizes she has yet to undergo the spesh equivalent of puberty (which is described in terms of a caterpillar’s changing into a butterfly in one night) to the point that she is naked and he is clothed in a non-erotic sense.  It is intriguing to note that the author makes a point of Kim’s changes being internal and mental compared to physical so that her outward appearance to Alex is basically the same before and after the metamorphosis.  However, with those mental shifts comes the problem of her imprinting on him.  Kim not only wants Alex’s love but needs it and not just in the mental sense.

Muddling the waters, of course, is the fact Kim is only fourteen.  Even if she were four years older, thus making the pairing more appropriate, Kim’s role is still to push Alex into a situation where he wants to be capable of loving another regardless of physical attraction.  He wants to see her as more than something to have sex with.  As soon as he sleeps with her (and the same holds true with Janet to a degree), Kim’s initial defining characteristics take a back seat to her pre-described function in Alex’s life.  Kim’s dialogue in relation to her need for Alex is uncomfortably misogynistic.  Kim seems to look to him for love and acceptance in order to be a person herself.  To make matters worse, we find out that she’s essentially been programmed this way by another character who claims he can help Alex find that feeling he longs for.  The argument then becomes something akin to woman not only needing a man to survive but that they have no purpose in life without men filling a void and telling them they need to be a certain way.

If you’re looking at The Genome and thinking it’s going to be thought provoking and speculative from the item description, I’m telling you it’s not.  The writing never sits on an idea and explores it instead opting for a musical chairs approach and hope you win the cake in the end.  The book reads like a morality tale more than science fiction.  In fact, the science part is mostly connected to the genetic alteration that makes speshes and the very brief space travel that occurs.  This is truly more the speculative variety, but not good.

Thematically, Sergei Lukyanenko inserts some talking points, but the lack of exploration and explanation are obvious the further in you go.  Things just are the way they are more often than not.  Characters, too. If there is anything to be gained from the book it’s the talk of how genetic alteration is not without risk.  However, even that theme gets mired in the muck of people being treated solely as.  Were the men treated more equally in tone, I might not feel so negatively toward the book.  There is an obvious difference, too, when you look at Puck in particular.  Alex mostly ignores the fact that Puck is not only homosexual but a natural (i.e. not genetically enhanced).  Yet Alex actively pursues sexual encounters with women he knows he cannot possibly have a mental romantic attachment to.  That the detachment is chalked up to genetics just cheapens the relationships and encourages the male dominant narrative of men treating women as objects rather than fellow humans, which is odd because the book seems to be saying something about acceptance of all sorts of people and their beliefs.

I cannot, in good conscience, recommend this book.  It’s sad to think that, even in the future, women would just be objects for male gratification.  Genetically altered but still just objects.  This type of thinking does not good storytelling (scientific, fantastical or otherwise) make.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Tudor Mysteries! The Newest, the Best, and the Ones to Watch For...


The Queen is dead; long live the Queen! So begins The Tudor Vendetta by C.W. Gortner, the third in a trilogy of mystery novels revolving around a young man whose life is interwoven with that of the young Elizabeth Tudor

When Brendan Prescott hears the news, he is ready to hop on his horse and head off to London in a second. After all, he has been in exile in one of Switzerland's Protestant enclaves for years, having had to flee the Catholic court of Mary Tudor to protect both himself and the young heir to the throne, her half sister, Elizabeth. But now the bitter middle-aged queen is dead, and with her, her reign of religious terror, and Elizabeth has ascended to the throne. Before long, Brendan and his mentor, spymaster Francis Walsingham, who has spent the last several years trying to teach him everything from how to detect poisons to the intricacies of secret codes, will indeed be back in London. But all is not well at court. Elizabeth may be on the throne, but that doesn't mean that her enemies have been vanquished. Nor have Brendan's own foes all disappeared: his old enmity with Robert Dudley, now the queen's favorite, burns as hot as ever, and he keeps having uneasy dreams about a villain who should be -- who almost certainly is -- dead. And yet... And meanwhile, he can't find a way back to the love of his life, Kat, whom he had to abandon without a word when he fled to the Continent to escape the old queen's wrath and vengeance.

So when Elizabeth calls on Brendan to solve a puzzle, warning him that it involves a dark secret of her own, he is all too eager to help. At the very least, it will extricate him from his woes at court and give him a way to demonstrate his loyalty. But when he heads north to investigate the disappearance of Elizabeth's loyal lady, Blanche Parry, he finds enmeshed in even more secrets than he had imagined. It's bad enough to discover that he has been asked to conduct his investigations in a household of devout Catholics who have little reason to love the new queen; far worse to discover that the secrets they are keeping threaten not only his life but the safety of the realm.

This is more of a rollicking adventure yarn than the kind of mystery yarn that relies as much on rich character studies and detailed, slowly developed plots. They are fun and lively entertainment -- puzzles are solved, sure, but the next event is just as likely to be a swashbuckling sword fight, a desperate race on horseback to save a life, or rescue someone from poisoning, as it is anything that reveals something about Brendan's personality beyond the basics established at the outset. He's an adventure hero of a certain type, and that's pretty much all you need to know. Which is fine, because this is entertainment fiction, pure and simple.

Two caveats, one large and one small. If you're a historical purist, you may want to approach with caution. Gortner takes some liberties with the known facts -- and even the probabilities -- of history in his stories, including the parentage of Brendan himself, and one of the biggest is the key revelation of the novel. I confess my eyes rolled and I groaned to myself: it was simply such a challenge to my credulity. But it's not literally impossible, as are the most bizarre inventions of Carolly Erickson, so I tried to ignore it and soldier on, and soon got back into the flow of things. But if you're really a stickler for this kind of stuff (I'm struggling to avoid spoilers) you may want to beware. The second caveat is much smaller. Read the first two books first: you'll understand why Brendan feels his fate is so tied to Elizabeth's, why he loathes the Dudleys, understand just why Kat is important to him and why even dreaming of the assassin from book two terrifies him so much. The brief explanations provided are adequate, but you won't feel you've just walked into a movie half an hour after it has started. And you'll have so much more fun: while the novels aren't as thoughtful or well-constructed as are Gortner's biographical historical novels (The Last Queen, etc.), they are still fun. 


A copy of the book was made available to me by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Tudor England, and especially Elizabeth England, seems to be increasingly fertile ground for authors writing historical mysteries. I can think of several other fabulous mystery series that you might want to hunt down, the grandaddy of them all being one set in the era of Henry VIII, Elizabeth's father.

Dissolution by C.J. Sansom: This is the first in a series of books; the latest, Lamentation, will be making its U.S. debut early in 2015 and I can say (having read it) that it may be the best of them all. Sansom's hero is an unlikely figure: Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer and a hunchback who, in spite of himself, keeps getting embroiled in the doings of the great and the good at court. Sansom does a simply amazing job of combining the lives of ordinary Londoners (and their court cases) with the high stakes political battles -- the dissolution of the monasteries, war with France and in the upcoming book, the battle over which court faction will be in pole position when the king dies, to hold power for the young Edward VI. Just, wow.

To Shield the Queen by Fiona Buckley: First published in the late 1990s, this series is being reissued and continued -- hurrah! Young widow Ursula Blanchard is asked by Elizabeth Tudor to help quash rumors about the ill health of Amy Robsart, the wife of Robert Dudley, her favorite. Then Amy dies -- of a broken neck. Murder, suicide, or...? Ursula sleuths for the queen and juggles her own divided loyalties, as she is wooed by an attractive man who may not be a supporter of Elizabeth. First of a great series.

Martyr by Rory Clements: You didn't know that William Shakespeare had a big brother, John, who was in Walsingham's employ as an "intelligencer"? For shame! *Grin* These novels are lots of fun, set in the final decade or so of Elizabeth's reign, a period that we tend to think of as calm (Mary Queen of Scots now headless; the Armada sunk). Not in Clements's eyes! Great plots; richly-developed characters and lots of shades of grey. His evil characters are those incapable of seeing the world except through rigid and violent eyes of zealots, whether Protestant or Catholic. I'm now reading the latest book, The Queen's Man, which is a prequel. 

Heresy by S.J. Parris: The first in another Elizabethan series, this one revolving around an unusual real life character: renegade monk Gioradano Bruno, who fled to England to escape the Inquisition. It worked, albeit briefly, and the author has imagined a role for him here as spook: a philosopher of whom the authorities can take advantage, with entrĂ©e to places those authorities can't go (like the French embassy). Parris sets her stories in the 1580s, and real life characters range from the likes of Sir Philip Sidney to Walsingham -- and she tosses in some great stuff about the philosophical debates of the age, to boot. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

How We Remember

MUSEday Tuesday

Section 60: Arlington National Cemetery


I visited Arlington National Cemetery as a teenager, and still remember how awestruck I was by its solemn beauty and its vastness. Heroes slept there, I knew, but they reposed at a remove. My visits since then to other veterans' cemeteries have been similar, except when I'm at the graves of loved ones whose lives overlapped mine. Then, my visits are quiet, largely solitary experiences, confined to the draping of a hand-sewn lei or the positioning of flowers, and accompanied by memories and tears.  

Front Cover: SECTION 60: ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY, courtesy Bloomsbury PublishingThese moments all have their place, but they are so very different from what Robert M. Poole describes as the everyday events at Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, where a number of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are laid to rest, intermingled with veterans of earlier conflicts. 

With eloquence and grace, Poole invites us to meet some of the many pulsing hearts that make Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery live on.

Family members and friends visit the graves of these veterans, leaving flowers, keepsakes, and mementoes, and drawing comfort in the bittersweet process of revisiting everyday memories as well as the ache of recalling how their loved ones died.

Somehow, those left behind -- whether civilians or veterans, whatever the year their loved ones passed -- have built a community. Poole touches on this by showing interrelationships, such as Vietnam veterans "being there" for those mourning more recent losses.

With compassion and respect, he also explores the toll of such combat-related issues as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other challenges that active-duty servicepeople and veterans both confront. Notably, neither he nor his military and civilian sources shies from such painful subjects, including suicide.

Reading stories like those shared here can be extremely emotional, but it is necessary.... Necessary for understanding fear and bravery, necessary for understanding what makes a person willing to die for a comrade or a principle, and necessary for working through grief, whether immediate or at a distance.

"No man is an island," philosopher John Donne wrote four centuries ago, "every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." Those at rest in Section 60 and those who keep their memories alive live this philosophy. Daily.

As one whose relatives sleep at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific and other veterans' cemeteries, I admire the people who have worked to keep the memories of their loved ones so tangible and visible. I hope their grace and generosity in sharing their stories starts a groundswell of everyday remembrance that spreads nationwide.


ARC courtesy Amazon Vine; cover image courtesy Bloomsbury Publishing

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SECTION 60: ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY
WHERE WAR COMES HOME
by Robert M. Poole
Bloomsbury Publishing
Released Oct. 21, 2014

Saturday, November 15, 2014

"Woman With a Gun" by Phillip Margolin kept me up all night!

I am tired today and it is all Phillip Margolin's fault.  I started reading this book last night and expected to be able to put it aside to sleep, but I kept waking up and reading a little more until I finally gave up, stayed awake, and finished it.

This stand-alone novel is a very different style of mystery so if you are a fan of the author's series be prepared for a change.  Rather than one main character who the plot follows through the entire book, there are a couple of them and the plot is not linear.  In fact, it is not just one story but three interrelated stories that take place in 2015, 2005 and 2000, respectively. And the style is a little bit of legal thriller and a little bit of amateur sleuthing mystery.

The book starts in 2015 with Stacey Kim, an aspiring novelist in NYC who gets inspiration from a photograph at a museum and decides to get the facts about it as background research for her book. The 2005 storyline is about the murder investigation in which the photographer is a witness and the subject of the photo is a suspect.  The main character in that section is Jack Booth, an Oregon prosecutor brought to Palisades Heights to help the local DA with a high-profile murder investigation.  Jack has history with the photographer, which leads to the 2000 story when Jack was a young prosecutor.  Eventually the book returns to the present and all the story lines come together.

That all sounds more complicated than it is and the interrelated stories both keep the plot moving and give the reader insight into the characters' personalities and backgrounds.  (Interestingly, Stacey was the least interesting character to me because her story is all in the present and she lacked the depth of the other characters.)

I had an idea who the killer might be, but for most of the book it could have been almost any of the characters except Stacey.  The confession was a little abrupt and it seemed to me that the evidence that prompted it could have been explained away, but those are minor quibbles with a book that not only kept my interest but kept me awake and reading.  If you like smart mysteries, this one is for you.

In a case of art imitates life, the author got the inspiration for the book from a photograph -- and that photo is on the cover of the book.

I received a free ARC of this book from the Amazon Vine program in exchange for a review.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Story Behind It's a Wonderful Life

It's a Wonderful Life -- that's the movie where we learn that being a librarian is a fate worse than death, isn't it? I have to confess, I've never seen the movie all the way through, so I may have it wrong.

Browsing the new fiction table at the bookstore yesterday, I saw one of those slender, bright red books that seem to proliferate at the holidays. Normally, I barely notice these books that appear to exist solely as desperation gifts. This one was The Greatest Gift: A Christmas Tale. But it was the author's name that caught my eye. Philip Van Doren Stern was a major figure in the book I'd recently finished. In When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II, a terrific book about the program that sent millions of pocket-sized paperbacks to Americans fighting overseas,  Philip Van Doren Stern was a major character.  As the general manager of The Armed Services Editions, he helped select which titles would be reformatted for military use, edited and anthologized some editions, and oversaw the entire project.



The Greatest Gift is only 64 pages long, and half of
those 64 pages are an afterword by Stern's daughter, Marguerite Stern Robinson. She describes how her father wrote the story in 1939. His agent tried to place it in one of the many magazines that published fiction at the time, but was not successful. She told Stern that no one was buying fantasy stories these days. Finally in 1945, Stern self published 200 copies of the story and sent them to his friends and family, along with that year's Christmas cards. Frank Capra saw it and immediately wanted to make a movie of it.

Capra, who had interrupted his successful career as a Hollywood director to join the Army, had spent the war making propaganda films. He was at loose ends on his return to civilian life, as so many returning soldiers were, and making a film that recalled the pre-war days seemed just the ticket. But it was not a hit with audiences, who overwhelmingly preferred William Wyler's movie, The Best Years of Our Lives, which was released at the same time as It's a Wonderful Life. Wyler, also a returning war veteran, tapped into what audiences wanted, with a story of three men who were having difficulty transitioning to civilian life.


Capra and Wyler are among the five directors that Mark Harris has written about in his book, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. Five Came Back is a detailed and often dramatic look at how five civilians, from different backgrounds and generations, adjusted to war, and then adjusted to peace when they came back to a very different America. Either Five Came Back or When Books Went to War would be a great gift for history fans.

As for that scene in It's a Wonderful Life at the library, it turns out that in the original short story, George's wife, Mary, was not destined to become an old maid librarian (horrors) if George had never been born -- she simply married someone else.



The Christmas Gift: A Christmas Tale
by Philip Van Doren Stern
Simon & Schuster, 2014

When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II
by Molly Guptill Manning
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
on sale December 2, 2014

Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War
by Mark Harris
Penguin Press, 2014 


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