Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Wires and Nerve: Volume 1 by Melissa Meyer and Douglas Holgate

Wires and Nerve: Volume 1
Marissa Meyer  (Author)
Douglas Holgate (Illustrator)
4/5 stars

Wires and Nerve is part of the Lunar Chronicles, and follows Iko as she returns to Earth to act as Cinder's secret agent and capture the remaining rogue Lunar wolf-soldiers.  The story fits nicely into the series, and is a believable addition, as one doesn't expect that the transition from war to peace would be smooth.  Iko's starring role is welcome, as is the appearance of all the Rampion crew.

The art is good, and the shades of blue give it a serious feel.  Holgate pictures some of the characters different than I, but it is still fun to see all nine heroes given a concrete form.

Overall, this is an entertaining read with the same feel as the existing novels.  I highly recommend it to Lunar Chronicle fans and look forward to the second volume.

Magical Miniature Gardens & Homes: Create Tiny Worlds of Fairy Magic & Delight with Natural, Handmade Décor by Donni Webber

Magical Miniature Gardens & Homes: Create Tiny Worlds of Fairy Magic & Delight with Natural, Handmade Décor
Donni Webber
4/5 stars

Magical Miniature Gardens & Homes is filled with charming ideas for making a fairy garden or home.  The photos are gorgeous; it's worth owning the book just to browse through the environments and decor.

The instructions for creating the pieces of the fairy land are detailed, and accompanied by illustrations.  However, despite the title saying "natural decor", many of the them are made from materials that one doesn't usually have on hand, such as polymer clay or copper wire. More than a few were also of fairly complicated design: twisting wire, weaving a basket, making bricks.  Crafting tools are used that require an adult, and that are also not available in every home.  It certainly is not a book that a child could follow to create a fairy home, and the less crafty of adults will also find it difficult.

While it may not be able to be an instruction guide for every reader, it will spark the imagination and possibly lead to other designs made from things on hand.  Also, as I said above, it is a pleasure simply to peruse the photos.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Song of Achilles
Madeline Miller
4/5 stars

Song of Achilles is a retelling of Achilles' part in the Trojan war, narrated by friend and lover Patroclus.  I was not particularly impressed with Miller's interpretation of the child Achilles, and I felt that her romance-telling skill was weak.  However, once Troy was reached, Miller's writing improved and she told the story excellently, with especially good use of metaphor and simile.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Seventy-Seven Clocks by Christopher Fowler

Seventy-Seven Clocks
Christopher Fowler
4/5 stars

Detectives Bryant and May run London's Peculiar Crimes Unit, where the most unusual cases get investigated.  In this third book of the series, a spate of bizarre murders comes to their attention.  In investigating these connected deaths, they find themselves researching a Victorian tontine, protecting the most crabby of families, and receiving unsolicited help from a nosy teenager.

As with the other two PCU books, the plot of Seventy-Seven Clocks is bizarre and convoluted, but in a good way, keeping the reader guessing.  Bryant and May are engaging characters, giving much personality to the novel.  The interwoven plot of the teenager, Sam, added an extra dimension.  This is a fun novel for readers that appreciate a far-fetched but enjoyable mystery.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Circles : Fifty Roundtrips Through History, Technology, Science, Culture... by James Burke

Circles : Fifty Roundtrips Through History, Technology, Science, Culture...
James Burke
5/5 stars

Circles is a sort of "six degrees of seperation" in which Burke begins with an idea or person (history, technology, science, culture, the like) and through connections with other ideas or people, circles back around to the beginning point.

This is a witty, interesting, and informative book that reads like having a conversation with the author.  Most lead me to want to research further on my own.  Some of the links are more tenuous than others, but that doesn't lessen the entertainment value of the essay.

The important thing to remember about Circles is that it is not intended to be read straight through.  One or two essays at time, at most, should be read, digested, enjoyed before proceeding to another.  Trying to read multiple chapters at a time will result in an overdose of Burke's humor, and an inability to remember any of the details.

I highly recommend Burke in general, and Circles in particular for the lay-historian.

(And yes, I have, and have had since the early 1990's, a painful schoolgirl-crush on Burke.)

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Classics Club: Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

(about the Classics Club)

Slaughterhouse Five, or the Children's Crusade: a Duty-Dance with Death
Kurt Vonnegut
published 1969

Vonnegut self-portrai
This was a reread for me, and I found it just as bizarre and incomprehensible and fantastic as I did the first time around.  I can't explain what makes it a 5 star read for me.  I know a lot of readers disagree--it appears to be a book one either loves or hates.

For those that haven't read it, Slaughterhouse Five tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, "unstuck in time",  who lived an ordinary life except for witnessing the bombing of Dresden during WWII, and being kidnapped by aliens from the planet Tralfamador.  Like Billy, the narrative jumps from point to point in his life, never in the right order, always returning to his WWII experience.  It is full of philosophy--but does Vonnegut believe any of it, or is he just playing with the reader?

Vonnegut was himself, as prisoner in Slaughterhouse Five, a witness to that bombing.  Is he the intrusive narrator of the book, the one who says "that was me" and "I was there" about certain events?  That is one of the great questions the book poses, and, for me,  it gives an extra layer of enjoyment to the novel.

Despite the choppy narrative, the strange story, and the feeling that the reader is being played with, I find Slaughterhouse Five to be an engrossing, compelling, fascinating read.  I don't recommend it universally, though, as it's earthiness and weirdness will put off many readers.

Notable Passages, Ideas or Themes:
After every death, in the Tralfamadorian tradition: "So it goes".

Lots of repetitions of "And so on."

The profound: "Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt."

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner

Goodbye Days
Jeff Zentner
expected publication date: March 7, 2017
4/5 stars

Carver's three best friends, Mars, Eli, and Blane, die in a car crash.  In the wreckage, Mars' phone is found replying to a text from Carver, and Carver can't stop blaming himself.  Neither can Mars' Judge father, whose influence opens a criminal investigation against Carver.  Carver finds himself ostracized at his high school and suffering from panic attacks.  His only allies outside of family are Eli's girlfriend who needs support herself, and Blane's grandmother who requests that Carver have a "goodbye day" with her.

This "goodbye day" would be a day where she and Carver do all the favorite things that she did with Blane, to find closure.  Unexpectedly, Eli's parents, and later Mars' father, ask for a goodbye day, as well, but their motives might be different.

Carver faces deep emotional turmoil as he examines his role in the accident, and tries to come to grips with his grief.

Goodbye Days is written for a Young Adult audience, with the intention of providing a realistic example of dealing with grief.  Zentner does this well. He also does an excellent job portraying the depth of grief, panic attacks, and the different reactions that grief can cause.  His writing is strong, his characters lifelike, and the plot believable.

That being said, I must confess that I had no connection with any of the characters in the story.  I didn't find Carver's memories of his friends funny or touching, nor did I become emotionally invested in his grief.  Furthermore, I found the descriptions of the goodbye days to be off-putting and slightly creepy.

 I have read other reviews of this book on Goodreads, and I know that my reaction is the atypical one, so I'll stress that this review, as is any review, is simply my personal opinion.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Girl From His Town by Marie Van Vorst

The Girl From His Town
Marie Van Vorst
3/5 stars

In this light Edwardian novel (published 1910), a young American millionaire, Dan Blair, falls prey to a fortune-hunting Duchess, then falls in love with an actress from his town.

There is nothing unusual about this romance; it follows an established formula, and is quickly forgotten.  The period detail and atmosphere is charming, however, and will make it enjoyable to fans of the Edwardian era.

It is available for free from Project Gutenberg.

Monday, January 16, 2017

She and Allan by H. Rider Haggard

She and Allan
H. Rider Haggard
3/5 stars

Published in 1921, She and Allan brings together Haggard's two most popular characters: Allan Quatermain and Ayesha.  Allan seeks out Ayesha, through the encouragement of the witch doctor Zikali, in hopes of finding answers about dead loved ones.  He becomes involved in the rescue attempt of a young Portuguese-Scotch woman, as well as a battle between Ayesha's followers and her enemies.

I thoroughly enjoyed She, which introduces Ayesha, and am a long-standing fan of the Quatermain books.  I found this one to be sub-par for Haggard, as there is frequent pseudo-philosophical screed that was often mind-numbingly dull for me.  I did like, though, how different Ayesha's relationship was with Allan as compared to that with Leo and Holly.  I also liked that she told Allan a just-sightly different version of her history that than which was told in both She and Ayesha.

 Allan's skepticism, though, kept the preternatural abilities of Ayesha from being fully enjoyed, leaving the reader to figure out the truth in between her speeches and his thoughts.

The action was, as is usual with Haggard, excellent and exciting.  Allan Quartermain is a hero I particularly enjoy reading about, and I think Haggard has done a wonderful job of developing his character.  I also liked getting to know Umslopogaas and wish that I had read his story in Nada the Lilly prior to this, and look forward to reading it later.

Sadly, I can't rate She and Allan any higher than 3 stars, due to the long, dull speeches and explanations of Ayesha.  If one is willing to skim over those bits, though, and focus on the rest of the plot, this is a good yarn.


Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Fifth Wheel by Olive Higgins Prouty

original illustration by James Montgomery Flagg
The Fifth Wheel
Olive Higgins Prouty
3/5 stars

The Fifth Wheel (published 1915) picks up where Bobbie, General Manager  (my review here) ends, but with Ruth as the main character, instead of her sister Bobbie.  Ruth has been trained to be a mindless debutante, but decides to try a different path and find a job in New York City.

While Ruth's story was mostly enjoyable, I found some of her adventures--and her happy ending--to be improbable.  In addition,  I was disconcerted by the details of events not matching between the two novels.  I also grew tired of the discussions about suffrage and woman's-place, feeling that Prouty used this novel more as a platform to air opinions than to tell a story.

Despite my complaints, it was, as I said, mostly enjoyable; a quick, light read that gives an idea of what life was like during the American Gilded Age.


Friday, January 13, 2017

A Christmas Beginning by Anne Perry

A Christmas Beginning
Anne Perry
3/5 stars

A Christmas Beginning is one of Perry's annual Christmas stories that feature less major characters from her two established series.  In this one, Inspector Runcorn (from the William Monk series) is on holiday when he discovers a gruesome murder.

As is the case with many Perry novels, this one is very introspective, focusing more on what Runcorn is thinking and deducing, than on action or conversation.  The mystery itself was interesting, though not difficult to solve.

Having followed the two characters involved in this book's romance from the beginning in the Monk series, I felt that the happy conclusion was both sudden and improbable.

One thing that continued to bother me throughout the novel was the familiar use of first names by Runcorn and others not in the circle of intimate friends.  This did not fit with what I know of Victorian times, and jarred with the atmospheric details.

Overall, this short novel is an enjoyable way to spend a few hours, but not memorable enough to make a lasting impression.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Bobbie, General Manager by Olive Higgins Prouty

Bobbie, General Manager
Olive Higgins Prouty
4/5 stars

Bobbie, General Manager is a charming novel written in 1913.  It begins when Bobbie is 16 years old, and gives vignettes of her life during the next several years.  It was Prouty's first novel, and is a not as finely written as Now, Voyager (1941), but the plot is enjoyable and the characters engaging.

The best part of the book, though, is the picture it gives of the life of an upper middle class family during America's Gilded Age.  The customs, manners, daily routines, and clothing descriptions are fascinating to read.    It is, of course, dated, with concerns that seem silly today and marital advice that might appear laughable to a modern woman, but this added to the atmosphere of the novel.

Overall, while not stellar, Bobbie, General Manager was a delightful read and I plan to start the companion volume (about her sister) in the very near future


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Classics Club: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

(about the Classics Club)

Why I Chose This Classic:
It's one that I knew the synopsis of, but had never read.  Since I love sensational Victorian novels, I felt I needed to remedy that.

What It Made Me Think:
My whole thought process during the story was that I wished I did not know the secret, so that I could enjoy the drama and tension of the novel.  I liked it, but I would have loved it, had I been surprised by the tale.

The one thing that bothered me was this: Jekyll talked about how Hyde thought little of him (Jekyll) and truly enjoyed being Hyde. Why then, did Hyde agree to return to Jekyll?

Also, the "good versus evil" scenario that is often depicted when talking about a Jekyll and Hyde situation is not appropriate.  Jekyll was quick to acknowledge that he had many faults, and that Hyde simply amplified and enjoyed those faults.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Happy Birthday, Severus

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls
Patrick Ness
3/5 stars

A Monster Calls is the emotional story of Connor, as he comes to grips with his mother's impending death.  A Monster in the form of a giant yew tree begins to visit him (in reality or in his imagination is left to the reader to decide), telling Connor that he has come because Connor called him and is there to help.

Ness writes wonderfully, and is an excellent storyteller.  Even when I wasn't enjoying the story, I was captivated by both the tale and the prose.  The character of the Monster was fantastic, wild and gentle at the same time.  I also liked how Ness slowly revealed parts of Connor's life, giving hints for the reader along the way.

I had mixed feelings about this novel.  On the one hand, it is an excellent depiction of grief, and of the unraveling of reality and emotions during a time of extreme stress.  Furthermore, it encourages the reader that it is okay to be angry about situations like this, and shows that fairy tale happy endings don't come about when dealing with terminal illness.

On the other hand, I didn't feel that Connor or the Monster gave the best example or advice for dealing with grief.  The monster is encouraging Connor to act during two episodes when Connor has a mental breakdown and becomes violent.  Encouraging as in urging him on to more destructive actions.  In addition,  this extreme damage to both a person and some property is glossed over, never fully addressed.  "What good would it do?" is the reaction of the adults in his life.  I felt that this was an unhealthy message to present to the target reader.

Granted, this is just my opinion: Patrick Ness won the Carnegie Medal for A Monster Calls, so other responsible adults feel that the lessons being taught are appropriate.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Giant's Bread by Mary Westmacott

Giant's Bread
Mary Westmacott
5/5 stars

Giant's Bread was the first novel  (1930) Agatha Christie wrote under her  nom de plume "Mary Westmacott".  It tells the life story of Vernon Deyer as he follows his destiny to become a composer, and the choices he makes along the way.

As is often with Christie's mysteries, Giant's Bread is a story of psychology, of what makes a person "tick", and it is a powerful story.  The phrase "giant's bread" is taken from the fairy tale quote: "fee, fie, fo, fum, I smell the blood of mortal Man.  Be he alive or be he dead, I'll grind his bones to make my bread."  Deyer's composition was entitled "The Giant", and his life was made up of incidences of "grinding the bones" of those whom he loved and who loved him as he made his way toward a life of music.

Her description of a Victorian childhood was reminiscent of her autobiography (my review), and was wonderfully told.  The WWI nurse's story was also an excellent example of the reality of that job.

I found this to be a compelling read, if not a quick one.  The reader knows from the beginning that Deyer will write his masterpiece, but following his path to that point was emotional and intriguing.


December OwlCrate

The theme for the December OwlCrate was "epic", paying homage to epic fantasies.  Here is what it contained:
  • Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurt (my review here)
  • A  mystery mini vinyl Harry Potter figurine.  I got Voldemort, as you can see; he looks great!
  • An OwlCrate exclusive greeting card of Lucy, the lamppost, and Mr. Tumnus of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, illustrated by @susanne_draws. I'm using this stunner in with my snowy decor for January.  This is definitely the best part of the box!
  • An amazingly creepy Eye of Sauron pin by @jane_mount, another exclusive OwlCrate item, which I can't wait to use.
  • A sticker with a quote from A Darker Shade of Magic, designed exclusively for Owlcrate by @missphi.  I've not read this series yet, but am planning to do so.
  • A set of four Game of Thrones coasters.  I was meh about these, as I never could get into Game of Thrones.  
This was certainly not my favorite box (last month's was), but it was, as always, fun to receive! 

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Classics Club: The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

(about the Classics Club)

Why I Chose This Classic:
As the origin of the phrase "time machine" and credited as the earliest time travel novel, the Time Machine is a must read for fantasy and sci-fi fans.  It just took me a long time to get around to it. . .  I did read an abridged version as a pre-teen, though, in my defense.

What It Made Me Think:
I thought a lot about how commonplace the idea of time travel seems to me, in 2017, and yet how sensational the idea must have been in 1895.  Many of the ideas were original, or at least appearing in print for the first time, so it must have been astounding to most of the readers.  When able to step back from all my "knowledge" of time travel, and see it as a new thing, I got a real thrill out of Wells' story.

I was quite surprised at how much of the novel was used as a social commentary on socialism, the role of women/men in society, society in general, and industrialization.

I thought a good deal, after finishing the novel, about the direction of the future of humanity.

I think Wells was trying to make a point by the trip further into the future, but I'm not sure I fully grasped what he wanted to say.   I see it as a full circle, creature to man back to creature, but I'm not sure if that is all that was intended.

Why was there a stature of a Sphinx?  Why did Wells think that the symbolism of a Sphinx was so important that it would have survived all those centuries?  From what I read later, Wells even requested that a Sphinx be on the front cover of the first edition.  What riddle did the Time Traveler have to solve other than how to open the panels to retrieve his machine (which he never did)?

What It Made Me Feel:
I was disappointed by how the museum seemed to me to be a deus ex machina for the Time Traveler, and was quite relieved when most of the items gained from there were lost to him.

I was surprised at how sparse the action was.  I felt like there was so much more Wells could have written on the Eloi/Morlock situation.  I couldn't help but wonder what the book would've been like had Verne written it instead, with his magnificent powers of invention.

I also, quite frankly, felt that the Time Traveler should have been just a bit more upset and tried harder to find Weena.  Is that the Victorian view of Civilized Explorer and Noble Savage showing itself?

Notable Passages, Ideas or Themes:
Socialism, as I've mentioned, was a theme that Wells was attempting to portray in a positive light by showing the evil deterioration of industrialization.

Other themes were the innocence of Weena, lost to the violence of the offspring of industrialization, and the fire of civilization that ran out of control and burned the forest.  (I'm not fully certain what Wells meant by that, but it's too obvious to have been unintentional.) 

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Happy Birthday Tolkien!

2017 Goal

I don't usually set goals for reading, or really have a TBR pile.  This year, though, I'm going to try to get back into reading nonfiction.  These are some of the ones I plan to read, or at least start, this year.