Thursday, September 29, 2016

Mosquitoland by David Arnold

David Arnold
4/5 stars

In a quick-moving chain of events, Mim's parents divorce, her father remarries, and Mim is moved nearly 1000 miles south from her mother.  After overhearing that her mother is ill, and being convinced that her step-mother is keeping them apart, Mim makes a snap decision to take a Greyhound to Cleveland and help her mom. Mosquitoland follows Mim's journey, both physically and emotionally, as she makes friends, faces tough decisions, and learns a good deal about herself.

Arnold's debut novel is smooth and polished, with a plot that flows well and nicely defined characters.  It is also funny, and heartbreaking.  With a few exceptions, Mim finds herself in situations that are realistic, and the choices she makes are also believable--even the bad ones.

On a side note, as a former special educator, I am in awe with Arnold's beautiful treatment of , and discussions about, atypical children.   I hope this lesson will be embraced by all who read it.

Mosquitoland is memorable, touching, and an overall good novel.

(I previously read Arnold's Kids of Appetite and found it amazing.)

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Six of Crows
Leigh Bardugo
4/5 stars

In the fictional town of Ketterdam, a team of misfit miscreants is hired to do an impossible heist.  These five teenagers, under the leadership of the equally young "DirtyHands" Kaz Brekker set out to make a fortune, if they can keep from killing each other in the meantime.

Six of Crows, the first of a duology,  is an adventure novel with a bit of fantasy thrown in.  It has an exciting, bold plot that reminds me of a Mission: Impossible story line.  The outrageous plans Kaz makes sometimes work, and sometimes have to improvised while lives are on the line, leaving the reader wondering just what could possibly happen next.  Several times I gasped, seeing no way out of the situation.

The writing is solid and vivid, flowing quickly from one escapade to the next.  The chapters are told in first-person from the point of view of one of the characters.  Kaz's team of a magician, a demo expert, a sharpshooter, a Wraith, a prisoner forced to work against his country, and himself, an expert pickpocket, have distinctive personalities and voices, making this work excellently.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book; enough so that I immediately purchased the finale.  I'll admit that I did find the ages of the characters to be too young for their experiences, but that didn't diminish the pleasure of the book.  Overall, it is a great yarn, and I recommend it to any reader looking for an epic undertaking against the odds.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake

Three Dark Crowns
Kendare Blake
5/5 stars

On the island of Fennbrin, queens are always born as triplets.  These queens are endowed with magical gifts and are trained from children to use them.  Only one can be made THE queen, though, and at the age of 16 they begin a ritual that will end with only one survivor.

Three Dark Crowns is a fantastic book. Blake skillfully goes from the perspective of one queen to another, with each queen having a distinctive personality.  The world-building is excellent, with customs and religion being explained as the story goes along.  The prose is engaging and Blake writes well.  The plot is exciting; I was left guessing through the entire novel, never able to know for certain where the story would go.  This is the first of a series, and Blake ended on a cliffhanger that took my breath away.  I highly recommend this for all fantasy lovers.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

The Serpent King
Jeff Zentner
3/5 stars

The Serpent King follows the senior year of three friends, Dill, Travis, and Lydia, who are outcasts in their small town.   As they prepare for life after high school, Travis and Lydia have some plans for their future, but Dill sees himself stuck in the same rut forever. Furthermore, the changes that are coming sometimes seem more than Dill can bear.

The story is told in chapters that alternate between the perspective--and voice--of the three friends.  Back story is filled in gradually and skillfully, and the character voices are distinctive.  The plot is interesting, though not always gripping, and the conclusion was satisfying.

I have mixed feelings about this book, though.  On one hand, it is a well-written book with a positive message for young adult readers: "and if you're going to live, you might as well do painful, brave, and beautiful things."

On the other hand, The Serpent King was filled with (mostly negative) stereotypes:  small towns, the Southern USA, fantasy readers, Pentecostal Christians, Prius drivers. . .    I was truly appalled.  I nearly quit the book about half-way through, overwhelmed by them all.

Zentner had a great novel, and he nearly ruined it.  As it stands, I can only rate it as "okay".  I hope he takes his obvious talent and writes his second novel without such stereotypes.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Classics Club: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

(about the classics club)


This is another book that I've intended to read for some time.  I'm not sure how I missed reading it or being assigned to read it in high school, but somehow I did.  I've seen a lot of references to it lately on Instagram, so I thought now was a good time to read it.

I compared it to both Breakfast at Tiffany's  (which I disliked) and to Catcher in the Rye.  The beginning, when Esther is in New York, is what Breakfast at Tiffany's should have been.

As for comparing it to Catcher in the Rye. . . there is no comparison.  Salinger is a much better writer than Plath, with a better ability to draw the reader into the narrative.  Both are written from the first person point of view, but I found the Bell Jar to be boring at times, and yet Catcher in the Rye kept me riveted (during a reread).

I expected to be wowed by this book.  I expected to feel connected to Esther and to take her journey personally--after all, I do have some experiences in common with her.  I didn't though.  She did not appeal to me as a character; I barely sympathized with her.  I felt blase about her and her bell jar.  I certainly didn't react to her the way I did to Holden Caulfield.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Classics Club: Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

(about the classics club)

This classic has been on my to-read radar for many, many years.  I bought Everland, a steampunk retelling of Peter Pan, and felt that it would behoove me to read the original first.

Thinking and feeling went hand in hand for this book.  The only thing I thought or felt was: what am I missing?

This book has a such a loyal, devoted fanbase over the course of more than 100 years--so much so that there is a statue of Peter in Kensington Gardens.  And yet. . . and yet. . . I don't see the appeal.

It was an okay fairy story; were I to review it I'd probably give it three stars.  The plot wasn't as adventurous as I'd expected, nor as engaging or even interesting.  I certainly wasn't enamored of Peter, nor is he a hero to be emulated.  The other characters were okay, but not special in any way. Hook was the only one that seemed fleshed out.  Neverland--this fantasy island I'd heard so much about--wasn't very impressive.  Sure, there are "Redskins" and mermaids and pirates, but, the adventures were just not very exciting.

I fully realize that this was a play first, then it was made into a novel.  I expected that Barrie might not be as adept at description as conversation, but I can't even imagine how this would be enthralling as a play.  Is it because they fly on stage?

Truly, I'm flummoxed.  Fans of Peter Pan, shout me down and share all the magic that I am just not finding.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Black Curl by Constance and Gwenyth Little

The Black Curl
Constance and Gwenyth Little
4/5 stars

The Black Curl is the final mystery written by the Little sisters.  Like their other mysteries, it is a funny,  complex, lighthearted tale with a strongly-plotted mystery at the center.  The inspector has quite the job finding out who cut off Bill's curl in the middle of the night; why the hair lotion been replaced with water; and, most important of all, who put the housekeeper in the refrigerator?

Unlike most of their novels, the Black Curl is told from the point of view of the hero, rather than the heroine, and the heroine isn't a sassy, back-talking strong female, either.  While still being amusing, it also lacks the screwball zaniness of their previous stories.

Despite the deviation from their usual formula, the Black Curl is an enjoyable read that will keep the reader guessing until the very end.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Ayesha: The Return of She by H. Rider Haggard

Ayesha: The Return of She
H. Rider Haggard
3/5 stars
H. Rider Haggard

She, the first volume of the "She" stories, ends with a thrilling conclusion.  Ayesha begins shortly after that, with Leo seeing a vision of where he can find Ayesha now.  He and Horace spend 16 years hunting for the place of the vision.  Leo faces a great trial, a fantastic battle occurs, and Haggard gives another of his excellent endings.

Ayesha is not as well-plotted, nor as exciting, as She.  At times, it seemed to lag, and I even found my attention roaming a bit in the middle.  The divinity and mortality of Ayesha , to my disappointment, was not resolved.  What I would really have liked was more of the 16 years of travel, and less of the daily life in the College of Hess.

The battle was excellent though, and the supernatural elements were just creepy enough to satisfy.  I also enjoyed the uncertainty of just where this story was going, of what Ayesha would do, and the tension this created.

I like Haggard's novels, and while this wasn't his best, it was still a good yarn.  I highly recommend She, and only then should Ayesha be read--with the understanding that it's just not as good.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Love That Split the World by Emily Henry

The Love That Split the World
Emily Henry
5/5 stars

Natalie has spent most of her life with visions, nightmares, and a mysterious, ghostly visitor she calls "Grandmother".  As her high school career comes to a close, she begins to see quick glimpses of the "wrong things": her house looks different, the neighborhood has changed, she sees friends that don't recognize her.  Then she meets Beau, and her experiences become even more inexplicable.

The Love That Split the World is a novel that is hard to explain, especially without giving away any of the surprises.  It's about learning who you are, the power of story, making sacrifices, and, most of all, about love.  Henry has taken a modern tale of two high school students and woven in strains of Native American mythology, science fiction, and fantasy.

The main characters, Natalie and Beau, are well-rounded and believable; it was easy to care about them, their decisions, and their future.  The plot was intriguing, at times spellbinding.  I found myself thinking about it when I wasn't reading it.   The novel itself is beautifully written, sprinkled with the occasional profound thought to make it even more powerful.  The ending. . . oh that ending.

This book is not going to be for everyone; the various elements that make up the story will be dull, or even confusing, for some.  For the right people, though, this book will be magical.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Doll: The Lost Short Stories by Daphne du Maurier

The Doll: The Lost Short Stories
Daphne du Maurier
4/5 stars

This set of short stories are early works by the master story writer, Daphne du Maurier.  They are by turns grotesque, funny, sad, eerie.  Her grasp of human nature is apparent even in these stories.  They are not, by any means, equal to her more mature short stories and novels.  However, one can see du Maurier's potential and begin to see signs of her signature style.

I wouldn't recommend this collection to a reader new to du Maurier.  I would instead recommend beginning with her most famous novel, Rebecca, or the story collection Don't Look Now.  Longtime fans of du Maurier, though, will enjoy seeing her early talent and noticing the strains of works to come.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

Holding Up the Universe
Jennifer Niven
projected publication date October 2016
3/5 stars

Holding Up the Universe follows outsider Libby, once known as "America's Fattest Teen", and popular Jack who is secretly suffering from prosopagnosia (the inability to recognize faces).  Due to a high school prank, the two find themselves in counselling together, and begin to really know each other for who they are.

The story is told from the alternating points-of-view of Jack and Libby, and this is well done. However, I think at times Niven tries too hard to sound like a teenager, and the prose didn't always run smoothly as a result.

Niven says in her letter to the reader that her message for this book is "You are wanted.  You are necessary. You are loved."  This is certainly something that teens need to hear often, and for that I applaud her, and give this book three stars.

On the other hand, Holding Up the Universe  is overdone.  Niven tries to tackle too many issues.  She includes mental illness, sexuality, obesity, and bullying.   In addition, Jack's ability to hide his prosopagnosia is simply not believable.

I think if Niven had taken one teenager or the other, and paired them with a typical teenager, the story would have been more credible and gripping.  As it is, there is just too much going on for the novel to be cohesive and meaningful.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Absent in Spring by Mary Westmacott

Absent in Spring
Mary Westmacott
4/5 stars

Agatha Christie wrote under the pen name of "Mary Westmacott" for six books that are not mysteries, but rather explore a character's motive, psyche and relationships.  Absent in Spring (1944) focuses on Joan Scudamore who is stranded in a desert Rest House in between trains.  With no fellow travelers and no books to read, she finds her mind wandering to her past and, she begins to question who she really is.

It is written in a nearly stream-of-consciousness style, with little action or description that does not take place within Joan's head.  Westmacott does an excellent job of this, immersing the reader in Joan's musings without continually drawing attention to that fact.  She gives the reader just enough clues to piece together the truth of Joan's memories, and to see what she either can not or will not see.  As Joan sinks deeper into her own thoughts, the reader is left wondering whether Joan will come out improved, unchanged, or insane.  Just as the story begins to feel like it might become too long, the train comes and Joan leaves for home.  Again, Westmacott leaves the reader anxious to see what the outcome will be, and the realistic ending does not disappoint.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Stars Above by Marissa Meyer

Stars Above
Marissa Meyer
3/5 stars

Stars Above is a collection of nine short stories that are about the main characters from the Lunar Chronicles.  The one exception takes place in that same world, but with new characters.

Six of the stories tell an incident from the childhood of one or more of the main characters.  In addition to being uniformly downing, these stories do not add any thing new.  Each tale has already been told, albeit more briefly, in the four Lunar Chronicles books, and being expanded with multiple depressing details did not give any more depth to the characters or their history.

"The Little Android" is a retelling of the Little Mermaid, and it, too, was sad.  I honestly found it hard to finish.

"The Mechanic" retells the introduction of Kai to Cinder from his point of view; again, nothing new was revealed and it was of no interest to rehash that meeting.

"Something Old, Something New" was the only redeeming feature in this collection.  This story takes place two years after the end of Winter and brings all the characters together again for a wedding.  This was a lighthearted, enjoyable story that is sure to please the fans.

Meyer's prose was good throughout the stories, a solid four stars.  The lack of new plots, though, made this just an okay volume.  I recommend readers of the series to skip to the end of the book and read "Something Old, Something New", giving the rest a miss.