I will post all book reviews here. If there’s a book you’d like reviewed, please make a suggestion.
SPOILER ALERT: Like River Song (and if you don’t know who that is, I can’t help you. That’s what Google is for.) I do hate spoilers. I try not to give them in a review unless I have to and even then I keep the big spoilers out of it. There may be minor spoilers ahead but nothing that would ruin your enjoyment of the story.
Holding by Graham Norton
I’ve always enjoyed watching The Graham Norton Show on BBC America, so I jumped at the chance to read his book. My first thought after finishing it was why in the world has he waited so long to write a novel?
A quiet idyllic Irish village is the scene of gossip and rumor when the remains of a body are found. Bones decades old start an investigation that stirs up trouble long buried and sets the entire town alight with speculation.
Norton’s narrative brings his characters to life on the page. The story itself is deceptively simple; the accidental discovery of the bones of some unidentified person sets the village to talking about the scandal of decades earlier when a fight in the streets, a broken engagement, and a would-be husband’s disappearance seem to point to a more mysterious end than the belief that the man had departed rather than face his young fiancée and the other young girl who loved him. Tongues wag and gossip is the main source of information for detectives as well as lay people. Things take a dark turn as truths no one ever imagined come to light.
Achieving a verisimilitude for which writers strive, Norton’s book is beautifully written. His prose seems organic, natural. His talent for storytelling comes through in every line. Witty remarks, elegant turns of phrase, and an engrossing narrative keep the reader interested.
Don’t think that because Norton’s other job leans heavily on humor that this is a comedy. It’s more like life. Tragic, funny, sad, full of choices, ending, new beginnings, regrets, and surprises. I hope Graham Norton decides to write another novel.
Bravery and respect find voice in this beautiful offering.
Dad and the Dinosaur by Gennifer Choldenko, Illustrated by Dan Santat
I love this book!
If you are buying picture books for kids, don’t miss this spectacular offering from Gennifer Choldenko (writer of the Al Capone Does My Shirts series and Chasing Secrets among other children’s books) and Dan Santat (The Adventures of Beekle: An Unimaginary Friend and illustrator of the Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot series among even more children’s books).
The story is told from the point of view of a young boy who, with the certainty of a child, knows that his father isn’t afraid of anything. Wanting to be like his father, the boy carries a toy dinosaur with him wherever he goes. He believes his courage comes from the dinosaur, so one day when he discovers it’s missing, he is more than upset. He’s certain he’ll never be brave again.
What follows is a sweet, tender tale of some father and son bonding, and a look into things that guys can keep to themselves and not tell mom.
The father’s willingness to hunt for his son’s lost dinosaur, to appease his child’s belief while never once belittling it or tainting it with a knowing smile or an “I’m-just-humoring-you” attitude makes this a heartfelt gem of a story.
What makes it truly special is the focus on respect—something missing in most books written for this age group. Not only does the boy respect his father, but the father respects his son as seen in the caring way he deals with not only the missing dinosaur, but also the implications of its loss for his son.
In a landscape of picture book after picture book trying too hard for a laugh, or shouting at their readers in bold capital oversized letters, or regurgitating whatever might be the popular formula of the month—this book is an open window on a clear spring day.
This should be the go to book for father’s day in the years to come. It’s a lovely story and one I’m happy to recommend.
Time for Christmas in July!
It’s never to early to get ready for Christmas. Just ask Hallmark. This book will hit bookstores on September 1. I was able to obtain a digital advance copy for review purposes.
Merry Christmas, Mary Christmas by Laurie Friedman, illustrated by Kathryn Durst
An excellent prelude to the Christmas season, the new picture book, Merry Christmas, Mary Christmas by Laurie Friedman, illustrated by Kathryn Durst, sets the right tone for this most wonderful time of the year.
Most people who know me know that I love Christmas, and while this book is about loving Christmas, it’s also about overdoing Christmas.
Mary Christmas’s family has a habit of doing everything just a bit too much. The lights are too bright, the tree is too tall, there are too many decorations and presents, and in Mary’s opinion it’s just embarrassing.
With the idea that Santa can help her love Christmas as much as the rest of the family, Mary goes to see him and explains her problem. She thinks his answer isn’t much help, but she stays up all night Christmas Eve thinking about it.
Her solution the next morning makes Christmas merrier not only for her family, but for everyone in her town.
Bright, festive illustrations that evoke warm feelings with a touch of humor, the story comes alive with the perfect balance between “the true meaning of Christmas” and the traditions most people treasure.
An excellent addition to any child’s Christmas.
Published in hardcover in 2015 and in paperback in 2016, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street doesn’t count as a new release, but it’s a new discovery for me. I first learned about the book after I’d read about Pulley’s new release, The Bedlam Stacks, which is due to be released on August 1, 2017. It sounded intriguing enough that I looked for her previous title. I snatched it up, and never have I been more pleased to have made a snap decision.
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is a book dripping with atmosphere. Mysterious, Victorian, in some ways Sherlockian—though admittedly that’s a superficial comparison—the book is one that begs to be savored, read in slow, mindful minutes with complete attention to each and every word. At the same time, it’s such a compelling read that I couldn’t stop myself from staying up until 1:00 AM to finish it.
Opening in London in 1883, the story begins with Nathaniel Steepleton, referred to after his introduction as Thaniel. The reader is treated to a description of Thaniel’s life and also of his feelings about that life. You begin to understand that Thaniel has given up a lot for the blessing of steady work, and the mundane sameness of his day-to-day life, if extrapolated from the fact that it takes him twenty-one minutes to dress and get ready for work, is weighing on him almost as much as the thought of what he’s given up to support his widowed sister and her sons.
His routine is so practiced and unchanged from morning to morning that Pulley describes it:
It was so well established that if he tried to do anything
unusual or go any more slowly, he felt a pressure on the
base of his skull.
His life and work have provided enough, but just enough.
He was not poor—he could afford ten candles and two
baths a week. He wasn’t going to throw himself in the
Thames for the misery of it all, and God knew most of
London was worse off. All the same, he had a feeling
that life should not have been about ten candles and
two baths a week.
Yet, amidst his ordinary world, Thaniel himself is anything but ordinary. A synesthete. He can see sound. He describes sounds in colors. For instance, the staircase where he works sounds yellow.
As he went down, it clanged in a bright yellow D sharp.
He couldn’t say why D sharp was yellow. Other notes
had their own colors.
Arriving home from work one evening, Thaniel discovers a velvet box with a white ribbon and a card addressed to him. Inside he finds a pocket watch. Beautiful, of an intricate design, and a rosy-gold, the watch is the harbinger of change.
The story takes off from here. He’s puzzled over the appearance of a watch he cannot even open. Some time later it opens of its own accord to reveal a card with the watchmaker’s name. It’s keeping perfect time, and only when the watch saves his life does he go in search of the Watchmaker on Filigree Street.
His life begins to change now, and the mysterious Mr. Mori, a Japanese nobleman turned watchmaker becomes an important part of the events. The roles of fate and chance begin to blur the more you learn about Mori, and you can’t help but be as curious as Thaniel is about the man.
Mori is unique in his own way. As Thaniel is a synesthete, Mori has his own unusual ability. It is this ability that colors how others view him. Thaniel will have his own loyalties tested the more he learns of his new friend.
Bombings, betrayals, suspicions, prejudices, nationalism, the preconceived notions of society—whether right or wrong—all play a part in the tone and intricacies of the story.
The thing I love most about the book is the language. The author has chosen words, phrases, and cadence that set the tone and mood of the story. Using words the way a painter uses paint, she proves herself a master of the art of writing.
Similar in tone and weight to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell by Susanna Clarke and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street has become one of my new favorites and is a book I will take great pleasure in recommending.
Shakespeare for Freedom: Why the Plays Matter by Ewan Fernie, The Shakespeare Institute of Birmingham
In his book Shakespeare for Freedom, Ewan Fernie focuses on freedom as it appears in Shakespeare’s plays. At this point in history, freedom should be our focus. Fernie’s assertion of its importance and relevance from within Shakespeare’s body of work surprised me. I’m no Shakespearean scholar, having taken a few more than the obligatory courses in college, but certainly not immersing myself in Shakespeare for any great length of time. I’ve enjoyed reading the plays, and seeing live performances as well as film adaptations. Yet, while a variety of themes were obvious to me, I hadn’t considered freedom in quite the way that Fernie has.
Fernie’s assertion that “freedom emerges as a supreme Shakespearean value” wasn’t obvious to me at all when i began to read, but his arguments are valid and a joy to read.
Using what he terms “a wide-angled approach” for this concept, Fernie examines facets of freedom for which I never looked and indeed hadn’t considered.
Freedom, in this sense, embodies a vast variety of interpretations and yet at its most basic the book proclaims that Shakespeare means freedom. It’s up to each reader, I suppose, to decide if Fernie has made his point. That’s a sort of freedom as well.
Perhaps I enjoyed reading this so much because I allowed myself the freedom of reading so scholarly a work for the first time in years, but whatever the reason, I found this a must-read for lovers of Shakespeare.
The Dispatcher by John Scalzi
If you like your crime novels with a bit of SF thrown in, look no further than this intriguing novella by veteran writer John Scalzi.
To write a detective story with a premise that might seem to be the beginning of the end for the average mystery takes a lot of guts. Scalzi is the perfect writer to take that challenge. His premise? What if, when people are murdered, they don’t stay dead? In Scalzi’s world, murder victims vanish and reappear at home, naked. Their bodies are reset, and their fatal injuries are healed.
In the story, “dispatcher” is a job description. They are people kept on hand to kill (or dispatch) a person with the express purpose of saving that person’s life. They sit in on operations in case the procedure goes south, they get called into emergency rooms if there’s a serious car accident, and then there’s the ‘remediation’ calls. If you’re curious about what that means, buy the book. I don’t like spoilers.
So what happens when a dispatcher is missing?
Tony Valdez, a dispatcher himself, is about to find out. A friend of his in the same line of work, James Albert, turns up missing. Detective Nona Langdon of the Chicago Police questions Valdez, and then forces him to help her begin her investigation. Encounters with an angry wife terrified for her missing husband, a man whose family is somewhere in the gray area between legitimate business and crime syndicate, and a grieving widower all lead to the truth behind Dispatcher James Albert’s disappearance.
John Scalzi is a master storyteller with a knack for dialogue and the clever observations of his characters. Scalzi’s world is real. The difference between it and the real world are revealed in small bites, but at a pace that means the reader is never in the dark for long, and the answers to questions come up even before the reader has a chance to think of them.
Well-written and including beautiful, full page illustrations, this an easy recommendation to make.
I’ll be honest. I had my doubts about this one. No offense to the author. She’s wonderful, but I didn’t think a book like this—based on a classic Disney film and therefore tied to a certain set of parameters—could be worthwhile.
I was wrong. Jennifer Donnelly did an amazing job with character and setting. Setting being half the fun in a book like this, the enchanted castle became normal in its familiarity while the world within the world became the unfamiliar, the strange.
The story takes place early in Belle’s confinement in the castle, and recaps some of the more familiar scenes like Belle’s visit to the West Wing, and the wolf attack, but it does this well. The reader isn’t bored with this revisit, just reminded and informed.
Since this is early in the story, Belle isn’t quite comfortable yet. When the Beast gives her the library, she decides to clean away years of neglect in an all day cleaning spree, and the enchanted characters help. Even the Beast himself helps out, but Belle is alone in a forgotten office just off the main library that was used by the castle’s librarian when she discovers an enchanted book.
Who put it there and why? I won’t tell you that. I will tell you that it’s a delightful story. Well written and worth the read, enjoy it for the opportunity to visit old friends in a new tale.
Marvel’s Iron Man: The Gauntlet by Eoin Colfer will be released on October 25, 2016. The book is aimed at young readers, ages 8 to 12 years. Colfer keeps it light for the most part and manages to inject the book with the sort of humor and irreverence for which the superhero and his alter ego are famous.
Tony Stark is surprised to find he’s been hacked, and not just his computer or his company, but his Iron Man armor. The perpetrator needs his help and intends to get it, however, in a series of betrayals and reversals that rival Greek mythology, nothing is what it seems and characters are neither who we think they are, nor who they think they are. They’re certainly not who Tony Stark thinks they are, and the revelations that come to light as he fights the villain rock his world several times over.
The humor is infused on every page along with Tony Stark’s unique brand of egotistical genius and pathological need to save the day. The gizmos and gadgets are fun and certainly believable within the context of the story.
Colfer has embraced the characters, and, with a nod to the comic books and the movies, brings them to life on the page. It’s a quick read that should delight Marvel fans.
One caveat, it is disappointing that, in a book meant for such young children, the author and publisher let slip the words ‘smart-ass’ and ‘hell’ more than once. Regardless of this, the story is well written, exciting for fans of the superhero genre, and entertaining. It’s up to parents to decide if the language is worth ignoring.
The Girl in the Well is Me by Karen Rivers is a compelling story that explores the consequences of chasing popularity.
For Kammie Summers, one of the most genuine, likeable protagonists in children’s fiction, moving to a new town and a new school has only accentuated the family issues she’d like to avoid. Kammie, in an attempt to ingratiate herself into the popular girls’ clique, agrees to do things she later admits are completely against her nature. The girls, not really interested in her friendship, don’t seem particularly concerned that she’s fallen into a well, and Kammie seems more than half convinced they won’t be back with the help they’ve promised to get.
Told in a gripping first person narrative, Kammie’s tale will have you laughing, crying, cheering, and shaking your head in both recognitions and exasperation.
Through her well-written prose, and realistic portrayals, Karen Rivers deftly shines a light on the need to belong and just how far people will go to achieve that elusive goal. Kammie’s story shows the reader that fitting in isn’t what we think it is, and that being “weird” or “letting your freak flag fly” may earn you the friends you’re seeking.
Doctor Who: The Drosten’s Curse by A.L. Kennedy
I told myself I wasn’t going to review another Doctor Who novel so quickly, but after reading this one at the behest of a couple of friends who share my Whovian obsession, I had to reverse that decision.
The Drosten’s Curse by A.L. Kennedy could very well be the best Doctor Who novel I’ve ever read. This author knows the Doctor. She writes the universe so well that you can actually see it in your head as though it is an episode. In particular the Doctor, in his fourth incarnation as played by Tom Baker, just leaps right off the page as if he were aware of being in a novel and could consciously choose to leap right off the page. (Really, if any of them could do that, Tom Baker’s Doctor would!)
Kennedy’s characterization of the Doctor is spot on, and every line was more of a joy to read than the last. I found myself reading with a smile on my face and even laughing out loud as I read since every line was infused with Tom Baker’s Doctor Who persona—including an offer of jelly babies!
The Doctor in this tale, while not completely companionless, is traveling alone. Taking place at some indeterminate time after the viewer-beloved companion Sarah Jane Smith left, this episode is tinged with the melancholy and loneliness the Doctor felt at her departure. Those readers who remember her final episode will note that her most memorable outfit does get a mention.
The story itself is an unlikely, yet completely plausible, series of events that include disguised aliens, the jewel at the heart of the universe, and, of course, saving the planet. This is Doctor Who, after all. There should be some sort of calamity to avoid. The calamity starts at the Fetch Brothers’ Golf Spa Hotel where the peculiar Julia Fetch seems always to be having tea for her twin grandchildren though she can’t seem to remember ever having children. Golfers are disappearing, and a man with a long scarf shows up at reception one day and to the horror of Junior Day Receptionist Bryony, passes out. So begins the adventure, but I won’t tell you how it ends.
One of my favorite things about this story is the TARDIS herself. She is so intricately involved in the plot that she finally becomes the fully realized character she truly is. She’s even a bit sassy, and in the end, the Doctor can’t really save the day without her help.
With a lot of books that please so completely on just about every page, endings can be disappointing in one way or another, but A.L. Kennedy avoided that trap. The only disappointment is that it is actually ended. The dénouement is satisfying, believable, and sequel worthy.
A.L. Kennedy is a name I hope to see on the cover of many books in the future…or the past if I can hitch a ride on the TARDIS.
Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye (Warren the 13th Series #1) written by Tania del Rio and illustrated by Will Staehle stands out as an enjoyable romp for children 10-13 years of age.
This is a clever tale about a boy whose family runs a hotel. It’s not quite the normal arrangement, however. Warren is the 13th boy to be names Warren in the family, and it was the first Warren who built the hotel for thee second Warren. In the family tradition, each Warren runs the hotel. When Warren the 13th was seven years old, his father, Warren the 12th, died. Since then, the hotel has been his responsibility. With marginal help from his Uncle Rupert and his Aunt Annaconda.
There haven’t been guests in the hotel since shortly after his father’s death. The hotel has fallen into disrepair largely because of his uncle’s laziness and unwillingness to spend money on the upkeep. Warren does his best to keep the rooms tidy in the feeble hope that a guest will one day arrive.
When a guest does finally arrive, Warren dares to hope that things will turn around for his hotel and he dreams of it becoming as popular a place to visit as it was in the past. In an unlikely series of twists and turns, and more guests than the hotel has seen in years, Warren makes some startling discoveries not only about his family, but also about his hotel.
What I most like about the writing is that there is no wasted detail. There’s nothing that doesn’t seem to be integral to the plot. It’s elegantly written with nothing forgotten and no loose ends. The story itself appears at first to be deceptively simple and almost familiar, but the twists and conclusions leave out nothing. For older readers, some of it may seem predictable, but jaded adults aside, kids will enjoy the fast pace and the triumphant ending.
Fast paced and with a satisfying ending, this is a quick read. The story itself isn’t quite what the reader expects. It unfolds rapidly, but at the same time, the pace isn’t so fast that you can’t keep up. It’s easy to sympathize with Warren and his longing for things to return to how they were when his father still ran the hotel, and his mistrust of Annaconda, whom his Uncle Rupert only married after Warren’s father’s death.
The illustrations are lavish, detailed, and as much a reason for enjoying the book as are the written words. Bright, abundant, and original, they move the story along and permeate the book with energy.
All in all, this is a good book for pre-teens and early teens.
Armada by Ernest Cline
Armada is the long awaited second novel from Ernest Cline. The author’s debut, Ready Player One, was a well-received, highly acclaimed and fiercely loved story pitting a vintage video gamer against pretty much the entire world. Fans and critics alike viewed it as a love letter to the pop culture of the 80s.
While Armada has nothing to do with the situations and characters of Ready Player One, it does have a few delicious similarities.
Back are the Easter Eggs. The hidden and not so hidden references to movies, video games, songs, and intricacies of the times that made the 80s unique are liberally peppered throughout the text. There’s no lack of references, and on my second reading I intend to keep a list just to be sure I haven’t missed any. For those of us who remember the 80s, these Easter Eggs will at the very least awaken a warm glow of nostalgia. They may even make you laugh out loud.
The gist of the story may sound familiar; video games as tools for the secret training of potential soldiers to fight an interstellar war. Indeed, many people upon hearing this description can’t help but mention the similarity to the 1984 film The Last Starfighter. Even Cline makes a point to mention the film a few times in the novel. The comparison is understandable but is a bit like comparing Mickey’s Christmas Carol to Charles Dickens’s original text. The idea is the same, but the brilliance is in the details.
LESS VAGUE SPOILER:
Zack Lightman, the protagonist in Armada, had indeed been training in interstellar warfare without realizing it, but on the day he learns the truth so does the rest of the world. It seems the planet is about to be destroyed and it is the few generations of gamers that must save the world from the hostile aliens. What follows is a series of revelations, conspiracy theories and hidden agendas that change Zack’s world forever.
Realistic dialogue, detailed battle scenes, a deft tying together of every end that could get loose, and details that bring the characters to life make this a worthy follow up to Ready Player One.
As with any author’s second book, fans of the first go into it looking, consciously or not, for more of the same. The desire to revisit the well-loved first book makes disappointment almost inevitable. There will be those looking for more of the same from Cline, and this book has plenty of similarities with Ready Player One, but remains its own story with its own mythos. Cline couldn’t possibly have pleased everyone with this novel, but I’m hoping he pleased himself at the very least. He certainly made me happy.
The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris
I have just finished reading Joanne M. Harris’s book The Gospel of Loki. I am furious with myself that I wasn’t paying enough attention to the publishing world to know that this was even coming out before accidentally finding it at Barnes and Noble. Suffice to say, I had to read it. If you’ve been on this blog at all, and have read my list of favorite authors, you’ve seen that Joanne Harris is high on that list. I may not have read everything she’s written, but I’ve read a great deal of it, and there isn’t a word I’ve read that I haven’t loved.
In The Gospel of Loki, as the title should indicate, Harris recounts Old Norse mythology, but with a fun twist. The story is told in the first person from Loki’s point of view. He narrates the book and even refers to himself with the words, “Your Humble Narrator,” or “Yours Truly” and other similar monikers. Loki is of course still the Trickster. He revels in it, and he embraces his link to Chaos. The story follows him from his first meeting with Odin to the days of Ragnarök.
The character of Loki is the one with whom the reader will connect. We see the world (okay, worlds) through his eyes, and though we know what must be coming (since Ragnarök is hardly Old Norse for ‘tea party’), we can’t help but identify with him and try to understand the confusing, conflicting mass of contradictions that is Loki. Trickster, manipulator, yet, for all of that, on some level he’s still seeking inclusion, acceptance. He even laments the fact that if the Asgardians had merely trusted him and accepted him, then, together, they could have avoided or survived Ragnarök.
It’s a fun spin on the old tales, and face it no matter how much you enjoy mythology seeing the same stories in a more modern language infuses them with freshness and readability that breathes life into them. The juxtaposition of modern language and such truly old stories is fun, irreverent, and leaves you wanting more. Though what more there can be after Ragnarök I don’t really know. I suspect Joanne Harris does.
The author’s mastery of the art of writing is such that she has turned the Old Norse mythology into a compelling read, even for a novice to the material like me. Her own love of and familiarity with the subject matter was apparent, and her twist of using modern expressions and relatable dialogue made it a delight.
You don’t have to love Joanne Harris as much as I do in order to love this book, and you don’t have to know anything about Loki, Thor, Odin, or Asgard either. She takes you by the hand and leads you through the tales even as Loki keeps reminding the reader that he can’t be trusted and that his top priority is himself. It’s a quick, fun read (and Ms. Harris’s deft abilities with dialogue contribute to that) and I’m going to be rereading this for years to come.
A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas
A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas is a YA new release. It’s a complete reimagining of the Beauty and the Beast legend, but with oh such a delicious twist. Maas draws you into her world with beautiful, vivid detail and she makes you want to stay with well-defined characters and twists you can’t really predict.
The protagonist, Feyra, is a young woman (Enter the Beauty.) who, in trying to provide for her family (sisters and a father) has taught herself to hunt. While hunting she comes across a large wolf she suspects may not be entirely animal. Believing it just might be one of the fae who have destroyed her world before a treaty was adopted, she kills it. Sure enough, she’s killed a fairy. The eventual result is that she is forced to return to the home of the fairy and live there in a sort of life for a life exchange.
The fairy forcing this exchange is Tamlin. (Enter the Beast.) There is a lot more to him than the reader imagines and Maas cleverly keeps most of the information secret only giving out bits and pieces as needed, but leaving the reader desperate to read more.
Feyra’s acclimation to her surroundings is not immediate. Tamlin is also slow to warm to her, and his friend, Lucien seems less likely to accept Feyra. Though, with Lucien there’s even more mystery than with the other characters. His past is eventually revealed, but I at least feel there’s much more to learn about him.
Maas’s prose is well crafted. The pace of the story is compelling yet not overwhelming. You do reach the end and wish for more, and, since it’s the first book in a series, you’ll get it, though you have to wait a while for book two.
The world she’s created is fascinating and as well defined as her characters. It springs to life but teases the reader with hints of a past we can’t know yet.
One caveat: This book is a YA (young adult) or teen book, yet, I do believe it could easily have been published as an adult fantasy. Young teens may be too young for the more than suggestive love scenes, and I found the violence a bit wearing after a time. As it is a teen book, I’ll suggest that the teens reading this need to be older teens or at least very mature teens. This is not for twelve year olds. That said this is a good read. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.