Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Chronicles of Chrestomanci Review

               So the book I’m going to review today is not really a recent book--nor is it a YA book, my usual reviewing stock. I really liked the book though, and I thought it would be nice to pay tribute to my favorite fantasy author, Diana Wynne Jones.
The Chronicles of Chrestomanci is one of Diana Wynne Jones most well known series, and though it has sat on my shelf for years, I haven’t given it a good go before now. My volume is an omnibus compilation of the first two books in the children’s series, Charmed Life and The Lives of Christopher Chant
          Charmed Life stars Cat (which is somehow a nickname for Eric) Chant, a young boy who is convinced he has no magical talents at all. This is rather disappointing for Cat, because his sister Gwendolyn is quite a powerful and ambitious witch. Things become interesting when Cat and Gwendolyn go to live at the castle of a powerful enchanter, Chrestomanci. 
The Lives of Christopher Chant takes place twenty five years before Charmed Life and follows Christopher, the boy who will one day become the Chrestomanci in Charmed Life
           Both books are quite delightful. This is not surprising. Jones has always had the ability to charm. Her books are witty, funny, and a little scatterbrained, but ultimately incredibly endearing. I really liked the characters in the book, they all felt well thought out. Though Cat very timid, I found myself immediately rooting for him. As for Christopher, he ranks up there with Howl.  Diana Wynne Jones also does a good job of making adult Christopher and child Christopher seem like the same person. The lives of Christopher Chant also introduces some of my favorite characters, Tacroy and Throgmorten. 
          The magic system in the world of Chrestomanci can be a little confusing, but the parallel world concept adds for some amusing hijinks. 
        The book is not perfect, tending at times to be rather confusing and inconsistent,  but it was so entertaining that I really didn’t mind. I probably am a little biased, though. 
Overall, The Chronicles of Chrestomanci is a book that I would give to anybody who enjoyed the Harry Potter books. Both feature your classic wizardry type magic, and lots of humor. Anybody who is fond of Diana Wynne Jones should also check this series out. 
Now I just need to pick up the next book! 


Sunday, October 21, 2012


   Since human civilization began, people have ventured into the wild to challenge themselves, whether to confront some inner demons, or to prove a point to the world, or simply, as in George Mallory’s famous words about his attempt on Mt. Everest, “because it’s there.” Countless stories have been told of such adventures, many of them dreary documentaries of endless days of monotony and routine.
Occasionally, though, a book comes along that makes the day-to-day trials and tribulations seem worthy of note, and even a chuckle or two. Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, is one such narrative. Self-deprecating and humorous, this Oprah Book Club pick has taken the arm chair adventurer-world by storm. 
What Bill Bryson’s popular travel narrative, A Walk in the Woods, did for the Appalachian Trail, Strayed’s blow-by-blow account does for the longer and higher Pacific Crest Trail. Sitting at home, one can feel the heat, hear the rattlesnakes threatening, feel the dirt and grime of weeks on the trail, and soak up the joys of that unique solitude found only in nature.
What leads this young woman onto the 2,663 mile long trail in the first place, though, is part of the appeal of her story. Barely in her 20’s, Cheryl Strayed is faced with her mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis and subsequent death. Blindsided by the suddenness of her grief, and unable to cope with the tragic loss of her anchor and the crumbling of her family, the author’s world spirals into a tailspin, as heavy drugs and promiscuities take hold and her own short marriage dissolves.
Living dangerously comes in many forms, and Cheryl Strayed takes the prize for sheer audacity and variety. From shooting up heroin with her latest fling to setting off, alone and ill-prepared, on an extreme athletic endeavor is the height of contrasts, and therein lies the primary attraction of Wild. Strayed (not her real name, but an aptly suited and prophetic one chosen after her divorce) is an immediately fascinating narrator, as she clearly identifies and calls herself out on her many demons, naming them,  and acknowledging them, not an easy feat for many people.
With plenty of journal-type descriptives, Wild’s allure comes primarily from Strayed’s competent writing, which flows up hill and over dale, as the landscape unfolds beneath her weary feet. Characters met along the journey take on distinct personalities, and the Pacific Crest Trail, itself, becomes the most developed character of them all, cradling the author’s every step, as she sheds her tattered skin, and matures, with every  painful mile logged.
Learning lessons both mundane and profound, Strayed manages to complete her task, healing her damaged soul in the bargain. Nature has an overwhelming tendency to force one to confront priorities, peeling away the the layers of remorse, pride, convention, and foolishness. The “why” of it all had to do, in Strayed’s words, with, “how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt this way to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way.” 
Through humor, honesty, and a well-written narrative, Strayed is an endearing guide through her personal journey of discovery, which is made even more enticing because it reflects the overall pilgrimage called life, confirming Henry David Thoreau’s famous words, “Not until we are lost, do we begin to understand ourselves.”

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Review: Raven's Seal

   Clearly, author Andrei Baltakmens is a fan of Charles Dickens, as his scholarly credentials support, and his writing style exudes, and readers are the better for it. For fans of Victorian and Revolutionary era classics, The Raven's Seal will be right up your alley... as long as it is a dark, seedy, Airenchester alley. Intelligent and richly woven, this novel will bring to mind Hugo, Dumas, and of course, Dickens, as the author drives the narrative deep into the heart of a fictional British city's Victorian underbelly, with its cutpurses, prostitutes, and the fallen upperclass hero, whose fortunes turn when he is wrongfully accused of a ghastly murder. Bellstrom Gaol, which no man, woman, or child ever wants to enter, becomes the backdrop for this vivid portrayal of 18th Century England's urban landscape. 
   This book hits shelves on November 1st, so if well-written period drama is your style, add The Raven's Seal to your list.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Review--Under This Unbroken Sky

    Occasionally, a book crosses my path that leaves me breathless with wonderment and awe, as well as filled with deep respect for the author. Under This Unbroken Sky, by Shandi Mitchell is one such book. Heartbreaking and intense, delicately crafted, and stunning in its simplicity, this telling of a Depression-era immigrant family, battling the challenges of their new life upon the vast Canadian prairie, where the sky is immense and unforgiving and the winters are harsh, is unforgettable.
    Mitchell's skills as a screenwriter served her well in this, her first novel. Every word is placed deliberately, with nothing wasted, and the tale she spins is one that pulls you in, as the home-steading family battles the daily challenges of the life of a farmer during the difficult years of the mid-20th century. The story itself is engaging, but what really captivates is the author's word-craft, which has moments of profound beauty.
    Reminiscent of Steinbeck and Hardy, two of my favorite writers, Mitchell left me wanting to know more, as I savored every last word.
    Put this one at the top of your list! Excellent read.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Review--The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

    Ok, I know I am late coming to the game on this one, and not sure why I never got around to reading it, but now that I have, I don't see what all the fuss is about.... really. Sorry, to all you "Hitchhiker" loyalists, but I found "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" boring, disjointed, and just silly... and not Monty Python/Camelot silly, which is brilliant, but "Airplane" or "Naked Gun" silly, but in book form, which brings in the "boring" aspect.
   Maybe if I had read "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" as a teenager, I would have chuckled more, or at least I would have been closer in time to the era in which it was written, which possibly might have helped.... but, alas, it was not the book for me... now, or, I expect, even back then.
   So, perhaps I need to attempt the reverse experiment.... instead of delaying on reading a classic, I will try to reread one I really didn't like at a younger age--maybe I'll find it magnificent now. Who knows. That book is "The Great Gatsby", another one that, in my mind, failed to live up to all the fuss. Rereading classics and discovering ones I missed is one of my favorite pastimes. Here's to new discoveries.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Review--The Man Who Quit Money

In the modern age, where success is often measured by one’s bank account and financial portfolio, the story of a man who walked away from that version of the American Dream might not resonate fully.... unless that story revolves around Daniel Suelo, whose transition from an average, comfortable existence to a life freed from the restraints of financial burdens reads like a hero’s quest, a quest for redemption, for self-discovery, and ultimately for his own soul. 
Daniel Suelo’s life is eloquently documented in the recent book, The Man Who Quit Money, by Mark Sundeen, whose own fascination with Suelo has spanned 20 years. Daniel resurfaced in Sundeen’s mind shortly after the financial collapse of 2008, when money, and the increasing struggle to manage without it, were on everyone’s minds. In no way a social outcast, Suelo was a presence on the internet, with his own blog, maintained from regular visits to libraries and friends’ homes, and Sundeen found himself captivated once more by this man who had bucked the system in a big way, and  who had come out the other side with a life, in Suelo’s terms, of “abundance”.
Determined to explore this alternative version of abundance, which by any modern measure is the antithesis of the definition of “having plenty”, the author convinced Suelo that the story of his life had resonance in this world of over-consumption and stress. Suelo allowed Sundeen into his world for several months, agreeing to the book project in a manner reflective of his all-or-nothing approach to life...  not a thing would be held back, all the chapters of his life would be wide open, including the painful ones. 
Struggling with faith in a deeply religious family, and reluctantly coming to terms with being gay, Suelo fought the conventional world, always feeling unfulfilled and incomplete, until one day he reached the breaking point, and drove his car off a cliff on the road to Mt. Evans. Having searched throughout the world for his spiritual “center” and failing in his attempt to end his life, Suelo made the very conscious choice to end his dependence on money, meticulously paying off all debts, until, in the ultimate terminal act, he left his final thirty dollars in a phone booth and headed out into the deserts of Moab, Utah.
Like Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, which details Chris McCandless’s own journey of enlightenment, The Man Who Quit Money deftly integrates the before-and-after aspects of Daniel Suelo’s life, clarifying a trajectory that seems inevitable. Living each moment consciously, guided by self-imposed rules of conduct--refusing charity, owning nothing but the clothes on his back and items found while dumpster-diving--Suelo thrives on what the rest of humanity discards. The basic process of living becomes deliberate and meaningful, something many modern people have lost. 
Whether admiring of or critical of Suelo’s chosen lifestyle, one cannot help but be fascinated by the conscious nature of his decision to live without money. The Man Who Quit Money is not just about a life without cash to purchase creature comforts, rather it is a respectful homage to a culture that used to be the norm. Like Chris McCandless before him, Daniel Suelo has managed to live life close to the bone, but unlike the unlucky youth documented in Krakauer’s book, Daniel Suelo continues the experiment, with no signs of giving up. Taking even a page from his well-worn book might just save us all from ourselves in this rat race we call life.


Monday, July 16, 2012

Review: Seraphina

           Seraphina, a YA fantasy novel by Rachel Hartman was a book I had been looking forward to for months, one that I might have done anything to get. Of course I bought it the moment it came out. Because of my hype, if Seraphina turned out to be even a hair below expectations... well, the result would not be pretty. Thankfully, Rachel Hartman did not fail me. The book was very, very good, and thank goodness, or I might have broken something.
        Seraphina follows a talented musician named Seraphina Dombegh, a girl with a secret. In a world where dragons take human shape, and live with humans in uneasy truce, Seraphina has a foot in both worlds, and no one can know.
        The world-building in this book is fantastic. The dragons were unique and amazing, the city felt alive and the history was believable. However, what really stuck out about this book was Phina herself. I loved her. I really did. She was smart, brave and talented. But also terribly lonely and distrustful (for good reason!). She was believable and lovable, and I would have followed her to the ends of the earth.
        Wonderful side characters abound, some of my favorites being Orma, Lars and Glisselda, and no one is in the slightest way one dimensional, friend or foe.
        There is an adorable and clean romance between Seraphina and Lucian Kiggs, captain of the guard, which was very believable and sweet. It was also refreshing that the romance was not the only point of the book, merely a wonderful sort of side plot, because so many YA books fall into the sappy romance trap, foregoing all aspects of plot.
       Ultimately, Seraphina is a book that celebrates love. Love for family, a craft, friends, a country, the kind of love that is pure and overpowering. Love is not a disease.
Seraphina was a five star of book for me. Combine awesome world building, wit and humor, powerful characters and concepts and some good old fashioned intrigue, and you have one awesome book on your hands. Thank you, Rachel Hartman.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Review--Violence 101

    What makes some people violent and others not? Is it nature or nurture that determines the tendency to inflict pain on others? Interesting topic, certainly, and one that could form the backbone for a fascinating novel--or NOT--in the case of Violence 101, New Zealand author, Denis Wright's take on the subject of violence in youth.
     Presented as a series of journal entries by rebellious, smart, and yes, violent teen, Hamish Graham, Violence 101 is a shallow attempt to study a youngster who has chosen a path of violence... and in some cases extremely graphic and disturbing violence. With rare moments of complexity, the story revolves around a boy who is completely aware of his violent tendencies, and who revels in them, making the journal entries a narcissistic romp through the kid's self-centered imaginings.
   The boy, Hamish Graham glorifies war, finds everyone else around him to be stupid, and has delusions of grandeur that are lamely destroyed as the story comes to a climax. The resolution of the narrative is flat and uninspiring, and I felt no compulsion to pity or even to understand the boy, which I think was the intended point. I disliked him at the beginning and I disliked him at the end. Final word--I disliked the book!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Review--The Challenge of Rainier

      Living in and around mountains, as we do in Summit County, we learn to have an appreciation and a respect for the high limits of our peaks. This fondness for the alpine experience is a sentiment shared by renowned mountaineer, Dee Molenaar, whose career has spanned many decades, and whose book, The Challenge of Rainier, recently marked its 40th Anniversary in 2011, with the release of the updated 4th Edition, including a new Foreword by legendary climber, Ed Viesturs. 
Dee Molenaar’s name was already familiar to me from K2-The Savage Mountain, Charles Houston’s account of the infamous and epic 1953 attempt on the world’s second highest peak. Molenaar’s experience on that Karakoram giant was shared by Summit County’s own legendary sportsman, Robert Craig, founder of the Keystone Science School and The Keystone Center.
What I did not know, until reading the dense, but engaging pages of Molenaar’s The Challenge of Rainier, was that he and Bob Craig had met before, sharing a climbing rope for their own adventure on Mount Rainier. “Dee and I did the first direct ascent of the Nisqually Icefall in 1947,” Craig said about his collaboration with Molenaar.  “In 1953, we were teammates on the memorable American K2 Expedition.  Dee was the ideal companion in high places - - steady, courageous, unselfish, and above all, humorous.” 
Aware that the 14,410 foot volcano is unique in the annals of mountaineering lore, I was prepared for a thorough documentary, but Molenaar’s deep knowledge of the mountain’s history impressed me. Unlike many authors who have documented historic climbs, Molenaar goes far beyond describing his own many years of experiences on the peak’s ridges and faces, choosing, instead, to detail Rainier’s mystical status throughout history, beginning well before the Europeans first spotted the massive peak rising above the waters of the Puget Sound.
Carefully documenting the volcano’s geologic birth, and the resulting distinct features that make the mountain such a coveted prize for mountaineers, Molenaar proceeds to “climb” the many routes on the mountain, as they were conquered, one by one since the first adventurers climbed up in their wool jackets and hob-nailed boots, often carrying nothing more than an alpenstock and a pocketful of prunes. 
The precision of Molenaar’s descriptions often tended toward tedium, but being an “arm chair” fan of mountaineering literature for many years, and thus having become familiar with much of the terminology, I persevered, gaining a true feel of the mountain’s challenging contours, which clearly should never be underestimated. Many casual climbers have journeyed up its slopes, confident of their abilities to master the mountain, but the unpredictable nature of Rainier’s location in the Cascade Range, which can receive immense amounts of heavy snowfall, and the dynamic array of glaciers, steam caves, and avalanche-prone slopes, all conspire to keep Rainier’s upper summits (3 named--Columbia Crest, Point Success, and Liberty Cap) unattainable for all but the most capable of people. 
Clearly, Molenaar was himself perfectly capable of navigating the many summit approaches, having studied the details from below and meticulously recording his beloved mountain through painstaking drawings from every angle. The Challenge of Rainier is filled with these sketches, exhibiting the author’s passion for the mountain upon which he honed the craft of mountaineering and guiding.
Countless lifelong climbing careers began on the slopes of Rainier, and Molenaar covers many of them, detailing the transitions ambitious youths made from eager beginners, diligently toe-kicking their way up the snowy inclines to the ranks of mature and highly-trained guides, rangers, or high-altitude expedition leaders. Numerous climbers, with their sights set on the most coveted of trophies, Mount Everest, sharpened their skills on Rainier, where weather patterns and the varied terrain mimic much of what is found on the highest peak in the world. 
Of course, chronicles of mountaineering feats would not be complete without an examination of the tragedies that are inherent to the sport. Rainier has seen its share of fatal missteps and accidents, but rather than making them the main feature of the narrative, as in many other similar chronicles, Molenaar allowed first-hand accounts from witnesses to speak for the deceased and for their places in the mountain’s fabled history.
As my reading of The Challenge of Rainier came to a close, I marveled at how much I had learned about this spectacular mountain, whose grandeur is often overlooked because it has the good fortune of being on our own continent, in close proximity to a major U.S. city, rather than in some far-off exotic land. Dee Molenaar is a convincing advocate for this nation’s own “mountaineer’s mountain”. Mount Rainier is worthy of attention and reverence, and his finely-crafted book is a testament to that. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

Review--The Apothecary

    Maile Meloy's clever and magical novel, The Apothecary, is the author's first foray into the realm of children's literature, and what a charming read it is. Sophisticated, but not overly mature, as so many books for young people are these days, The Apothecary retained an innocence throughout, in spite of the very heavy subject matter... The Cold War and nuclear proliferation.
     Transplanted to London, Janie, the heroine, is a teenager from California, coming to terms, like the rest of the world, with the new post WWII reality. Now, the terms Nazi, the Axis, and the Allies, have been replaced by the Soviets, Communism, atomic bombs, and Oppenheimer. But, this story is not all dark and ominous, even with the serious topic, for there are potions and magic books to give the tale a fun twist.
    There is romance, too, do not fear, but it is not the sappy, slutty variety, but rather sweet and age appropriate. And, the magic... what fun! It is presented in a playful manner, with elixirs that provide all sorts of excitement.... truth serums, invisibility, and transformations.
    Still, even though the story is light-hearted, there is tension and violence, but there is also an overarching theme of anti-war and nuclear non-proliferation, which makes it a good read for the 21st Century.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Review--The Seamstress

    If you are feint of heart or would rather turn a blind eye to the uglier parts of human history, then this book might not be for you. But, if, like me, you feel the best way to touch the past is through the chronicles of real experiences, then The Seamstress is a perfect choice... perfect, not because of the topic, which is anything but, but rather because only through facing the deepest and darkest corners of man's nature can we ever become enlightened.
    Having myself written--on behalf of my father--a World War II memoir, I was eager to read this one, though I knew that it would cause great sadness... as it should. Countless Holocaust books have been written, but then again, countless Holocaust tragedies were experienced.
    Seren Tuvel Bernstein's memoir is striking, like Elie Wiesel's classic, Night,  in that this particular survivor speaks in a clear voice, untainted by anger, bitterness, or enmity. Digging deeply into her painful memories, Ms. Bernstein recounts the joys of her pre-war life, and contrasts it with the downward spiral into war, and the horrors of the time she spent in Ravensbrück, one of Hitler's most notorious labor/death camps. Ravensbrück was unique in that it housed only women... tens of thousands of women... many of whom endured unspeakable experiments, and certainly terrifying and inhumane conditions.
    Ms. Bernstein chronicles the experience of surviving not only one camp, but two, the second being the infamous Dachau, which I have visited, and it is a place that will never leave me. Ms. Bernstein survived that camp's liberation weighing only 44 pounds; it is hard to imagine that life can be maintained at such a level, but man's resiliency is astounding, and Ms. Bernstein was lucky enough to be more hardy--both physically and emotionally--than many.
     Having been a part of my own father's revisiting of the war, I can relate very well to the experience Louise Loots Thorton and Marlene Bernstein Samuels, the "writers/interviewers" of Ms. Bernstein's memories, so I read this book with that in mind, remembering the difficulties I had getting my father to open up about particularly painful experiences.
    Some stories should be shared far and wide, the better to remind us of the scope of human suffering... and of the capacity for human compassion and love. The Seamstress is just such a book, a gift to us all, and it is with respect for all those who suffered, that I share it.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Review: Sabriel

           Sabriel, by Garth Nix is a unique fantasy led by a strong, capable young woman. Sabriel is set in an interesting world—a sort of mix between WW2 level technology and classic Tolkien swords and magic. The magic system is clever and well thought out. I loved that bells were an integral part of the magic of the Abhorsen… whose job it is to bind the dead.
The book follows an 18 year old woman named Sabriel, on a journey to bring back her father, the Abhorsen. But all is not well in the Old Kingdom… the dead are rising, and it is up to Sabriel to take her father’s place and put a stop to it. Along the way, she meets some memorable characters: the guard, Touchstone, and my personal favorite, Moggot, her guide. Sabriel herself is a wonderful character. She is strong and smart, but wholly human and vulnerable, too. It was a delight to follow her as she found her path. Touchstone is very likable, and Moggot is full of win—he is sarcastic and amusing but at the same time, incredibly intimidating. 
 I guess that the dead in this book could be considered zombies (well, yes, they are zombies in the simplest sense of the word) but they read very differently, though they are no less menacing. The underworld that Nix created is fantastic, and the influence from mythology is clear (and appreciated). 
The pace is extremely fast, never letting up for a second, which makes it hard to put down, and it’s a deliciously dark and scary romp. The constant state of danger and shadowy monsters lurking in every corner was enough to make me shiver. I will definitely be picking up the next book of the trilogy, Lireal. 
Sabriel is a perfect read for those looking for an excellent dark fantasy adventure—but not those afraid of the dark. 

Note: Here is an excellent rendition of Sabriel I found on DeviantArt... Check it out:


    Call it a guilty pleasure, but sometimes these teen paranormal romances, while certainly not high-brow literature, can fill a niche in one's library repertoire. Such was the case with Need, by Carrie Jones. I wasn't expecting much when I cracked this one open, and after I got over the scoffing and critiquing that inevitably goes along with the first few chapters, I was dragged, albeit slightly shamefacedly and kicking and screaming, into the story.
    Steeped in the usual teenage angst, high school drama, and dreamy romance, Need still managed to entertain, though ask me about it in a couple weeks and I probably will have forgotten its plot. What supernatural beings were revealed in this one, you ask? Well, some of the usual ones, of course, namely werewolves, but pixies dominate, and they are angry, violent beings, so there is a slight edginess present throughout the narrative.
    This is the first of what might be several, but at least two (2nd is Captivate) books, and I might attempt that one, as well... if in a few weeks I can remember this one and I have nothing better to read.

Next reviews up: Wake, The Geography of Bliss, and Death Sentence.


Sunday, April 29, 2012

Review: Fire and Hemlock

When I first picked up Fire and Hemlock, a novel by the "queen of the fantastic" Diana Wynne Jones, I expected something very similar to Howl's Moving Castle, the only other Diana Wynne Jones book I have read. I ended getting something quite different--in fact, something unlike any other book I have read--and I liked it. A lot.  
Fire and Hemlock, a retelling of the ballads Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer,  follows Polly Whittacker, 19 years old and a little confused. You see, Polly has two memories. In one, her life is fairly normal and uneventful. In the other, she mistakenly wanders into a funeral and meets the peculiar, mild-mannered cellist Thomas Lynn. 
Fire and Hemlock is largely a coming of age story. It details the course of Polly's strange, often heartbreaking life from the age of ten to 19. Polly is relatable from the very beginning, and she is no useless crybaby protagonist--she is brave and smart, an ideal hero-trainee.* The other characters in Fire and Hemlock are equally interesting. Not a single one feels underdeveloped (though I would have liked to see Tom's quartet get more screen time) and all are more then they appear to be on the surface.
The atmosphere of this book is amazing. Fire and Hemlock is extremely mysterious, so mysterious that for the first three quarters of the book I had no idea why such strange things were happening. While the book is set in 1980's England, and feels similar to modern day, a subtle but a potent magical atmosphere clings to its pages.  Also, as to be expected with Diana Wynne Jones, this book is both witty and humorous. A real winner.
My only complaint is that this book is rather confusing. There are so many details and layers that it becomes a little overwhelming, and I know for sure I didn't catch everything. I think that this is a book you'd have to read several times to truly understand.
To conclude, Fire and Hemlock is a unique, thought-provoking fantasy that has a most mysterious quality in that it exists HERE NOW, NOW HERE, and NOWHERE.**


*Why don't you just read the book?
**I'm not going to repeat myself. READ IT!

Friday, April 27, 2012


    There is no real need for Odysseus to worry about the underwater ladies in Tricia Rayburn's novel, Siren, as long as he keeps his ear buds in and his i-pod turned up... at least that is how it seemed to work for the savvy teens of this paranormal story set on the coast of Maine.
    With her own sister and numerous men washing up dead at the popular summer resort, Vanessa, the heroine of Siren, must look beyond the waves if she wants to discover the truth of the mystery that is enveloping her town.
    She is not alone in her quest, of course, for who lives next door but a handsome college student, ready to catch her when she falls and help her as she follows an uncertain path of discovery. Formulaic? Yes! Fun, anyway? Sure. Stellar? Absolutely not. Painful? Not at all.
    Siren is a quick, fun, and harmless read... good to pack with the beach towel... just remember to take your i-pod and don't go in the water.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Review--Dark Eden

    What a bizarre book this one was.... Patrick Carman's Dark Eden had a premise with potential, which, in my opinion, never materialized. The idea that a person's most deeply-held fears could be cured through some strange mind control is a fascinating one, I suppose, but the framework of Carman's book was so loosely-held it made the acceptance of the concept impossible. And that is the most important task an author has in a fantasy/science fiction narrative--making the impossible seem possible and believable.
    In the case of Dark Eden, reality seemed so skewed, even the normal aspects of the world didn't fit. Relationships were shallow, dialogue was unrealistic, and the characters were poorly developed... even that of the main character, who we are supposed to care about the most. I found myself not caring at all: was not concerned when the kids'  worst fears were faced, because at the end things just didn't make sense. And the ending! Don't get me started. What a cop out.
    I walked away from this one most gladly... but not until discovering one very important thing: one of my greatest fears is having to face another book as poorly-written as Dark Eden.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Review--Caleb's Crossing

   Caleb's Crossing, an historical novel by Geraldine Brooks, was very interesting, as it covered an often-neglected aspect of American History. In the early years of the colonies, when the Puritans were actively seeking to convert the Native Americans from what they deemed to be pagan beliefs, there were Indians taken into the "fold", so to speak, and educated in the European fashion. This meant having a firm grasp of Latin, Greek, the classics, and of course, the Bible.
    Based on the true story of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard, Caleb's Crossing is a lovely story of friendship, learning, and tradition. Told from the point of view of a young Puritan girl, the daughter of a minister seeking to convert the natives, the narrative is tender and innocent, as Bethia watches the world change before her eyes and the native peoples struggling to find their places in it. Some bend and find their niches, in order to survive, while others fight and curse, never destined to assimilate into the culture that eventually annihilates theirs.
    The book is sensitive to the early plights of the Indians, who struggled to hold on to their traditions and beliefs in the face of the relentless flood of newcomers from over the waters. The narrative reminded me just how insensitive the early settlers were to those who were here before them, reminding me that this country has some dark histories that are often ignored.
    For a fascinating reminder of that turbulent period of this nation's history, this book is worth your time. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
~ Karina

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Review--The Strain

    Calling all vampire lovers! Or haters, more appropriately... The Strain is no Twilight. The first in a trilogy by Guillermo Del Toro (of Pan's Labyrinth fame), The Strain was creepy, dark, violent, and fast-paced, as well as very cinematic, of course. Manhattan is in the grip of an epidemic never imagined, after an airplane, laden with dead passengers goes dark on the tarmac. Something evil is unleashed, and in true Hollywood fashion, a doomsday scenario must be averted by an average citizen who finds himself at the head of an unlikely group of people who recognize what is really at stake.
   The book is a quick read and not for those feint of heart, and it reads a bit predictably, but it was fun, nonetheless.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Review-Before I Go to Sleep

   Before I Go to Sleep, a gripping psychological thriller by S.J. Watson, grabbed me from the first page, and had me hooked all the way to the end... just as a good book should. Very cinematic throughout, this fast-paced narrative kept reminding me of movies like Dead Again, Secret Window, and oddly enough, Groundhog Day, though without the laughter.
   Imagine waking up each morning not knowing who you are, having only the hours of that day to figure it all out before you go to sleep, just to start over from square one again the next day. Cleverly crafted and haunting, this book had me puzzling through the mysteries that arose from the fascinating premise.
   Don't miss this one!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Review--The Kitchen House

    The Kitchen House, by Kathleen Grissom, was a very moving story about just what it means to be a family. Set in the South during the 18th and 19th Centuries, it chronicles the life of Lavinia, an Irish orphan who is indentured as a young child to a slave owner in Virginia. Color-blind, as youngsters were, even then, Lavinia is raised by the plantation's slaves, and they become her family, easily filling the gaping holes in her heart.
   Profound and tragic, The Kitchen House explores the complex nature of the lives of blacks and whites during that time, highlighting the various relationships, whether it was through blood-relation, violence, simple circumstance, or honest commitment. The characters are fully formed and they command the reader's attention, as their flaws unfurl, revealing their true natures, both good and bad.
   One of the best books I've read recently. I highly recommend it.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Review--Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

    Helen Simonson's debut novel, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, was utterly charming and extremely British in feel. Leisurely paced and in turns witty and moving, this non-traditional love story was simply delightful. Though subtle in its social commentary, achieved more by showing rather than telling, the main thrust of the narrative is the timelessness of true love, no matter at what age.
    Major Pettigrew strikes one as quintessentially British, and his small village suits his character to a tee. Despite the fact that change seems difficult for this new widower, he has no qualms about commencing an unconventional and sweet romance with Mrs. Ali, also recently widowed. The two must navigate the prejudices and conventions of an insular and established community, as they strive to make their sunset romance thrive.
    For a nicely-paced, calm read, this one is well worth for time. Now, tally-ho!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Review--Arctic Rising

   Arctic Rising, by Tobias S. Buckell is a fast-paced ride through a warming arctic, where the world order has shifted and nefarious factions are determined to inflict their solutions for rising and warming seas upon a helpless world. Despite the timely and fascinating premise, this book failed to impress. It read too much like a B-movie treatment, and the characters felt half-baked and left me ambivalent about their fates, and frankly about the fate of the planet.
    Occasionally, deep ethical issues were raised and discussed, but they seemed hollow when enveloped in a narrative that felt trite and unformed.
    Unless you have unlimited time for books of all sorts, don't bother.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Review--The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

    If The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie sounds familiar, it is... Tessa has already reviewed this book, giving Alan Bradley's mystery a glowing write up. I am with her on this one... if you are a fan of Agatha Christie and British settings, in general, then you will enjoy this light-hearted and clever whodunit.
   Though the author is American, he manages to craft a story that is decidedly British, in both the setting and the tone.
    Flavia de Luce is a girl to be reckoned with, and her intelligence and quick wit drive the story. Humor abounds, as do skilled twists and turns in this sophisticated mystery. Our heroine is not above the odd practical joke, and her freakish knowledge of poisons makes her slightly dangerous. Though only eleven, Miss Flavia jumps off the page as a mature, well-rounded character, who patrols the small village of Bishop's Lacey on her beloved bike, Gladys. Flanked by two sisters, Ophelia (Feely) and Daphne (Daffy), one a self-absorbed beauty, the other a bookish recluse, Flavia shines... and so does this first of what I hope will be many more entertaining puzzles.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Review--A Discovery of Witches

    On first blush,  as I began A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness, I feared a revival of Twilight, and I came close to fleeing in disgust. I didn't think I could face that kind of story again. But, my (now familiar, if you read my last post) 50 page rule still in effect, I stuck with it. Don't misunderstand; there are similarities, as clearly Ms. Harkness was eager to just on the paranormal romance bandwagon, but A Discovery of Witches succeeded in "sucking" me in (sorry, couldn't help it, what with the hot vampire and all).
    More sophisticated that Bella Swann's adventures, this tale strives to be mature and intellectual, and it helps that the heroine is a witch, not some teen girl who has no gumption of her own. Unfortunately, the author couldn't help but fall into the trap of a "damsel in distress" story, where the gorgeous, fiendishly smart vampire sweeps her off her feet in an overprotective manner to save the day.
    But, Diana, the witch with hidden powers beyond her imaginings, manages to hold her own, though she does turn to jelly at the sight of her blood-sucking paramour. Daemons, witches, and vampires, oh my... A Discovery of Witches was fun... simple, but fun, though this genre is clearly played out. All in all, I would call it a spring break beach book. Enjoy.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Two contrasting reviews--Bad book-vs-good book

    I don't know about you, but I have a book rule for myself... I make myself read at least 50 pages of a book before I am allowed to decide to set it aside. And even then, especially since starting this blog, I often force myself to complete a less-than-stellar read, since, frankly, bad reviews are fun to write. Also, paying attention to why I don't like a book, helps me to avoid those same pitfalls as I write my own stories.
    Occasionally, though, a book comes along that is simply so terrible that I can barely hold out for those first 50 pages. Contrastingly, from time to time, there is a book that I breeze through on a second reading, simply because I find it so enjoyable.
    Falling into the first category is the book, Altar of Bones, by Phillip Carter. This book was so dismal and so painful, that committing to those required 50 pages was a real feat. How this kind of book--for there are many more just like it--ever finds a publisher, I'll never know. This book ended up in our house as a forgotten artifact from someone's airplane trip, and I pity the poor soul who had only this book for entertainment while traveling. I hope the in-flight movie selection provided an option. Cheap, trashy, crude, and shallow, Altar of Bones deserves no further comments except that it ended up in the dumpster--and I do not throw away books lightly.
    The second book, the one that warranted a second reading from me, was The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. This book, which you know, unless you are living under a rock, is about to hit Hollywood in a big way. Though not fine literature, the story is captivating on many levels, packing a punch and managing to carry a heavy moral message, all while being as entertaining as hell. I am a fan of dystopian novels, though the concept is rarely handled so well. Since, again, you'd have to be living under a rock to have not heard about this book, I am not going to say much more, except that you have one week to read it before the movie reviews reveal all the spoilers.
   That's all for now--off to tackle another the first 50 pages of another book... or two, come what may. I'll report back soon!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Review: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

         The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley, is a delightful mystery featuring a perfectly precocious sleuth/mad scientist, Flavia De Luce. At only eleven, Flavia is a gifted chemist with a penchant for poison, who, it just so happens, is a fair hand at solving a mystery. Set in the 50’s, I liked the relaxed, old fashioned (and very British!) feel that this book had. There was also a bit of humor, which I appreciated. I really loved Flavia, who was absolutely wonderful. She was whip-smart, sharp-tongued, and just reckless enough to get into some sticky situations. I loved the dynamics between Flavia and her sisters. As for the mystery, while I developed a fairly accurate hunch early on in the book, it was still quite interesting, and kept me guessing on some points. It was very entertaining to follow Flavia as she raced all over the town on her bicycle, Gladys, looking for clues. Overall, I thought this was a fun, fast-paced read. I certainly breezed through it! If you like a good mystery with a charming young detective at its heart, then you will enjoy The sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.


Friday, February 24, 2012


   This is one of those cases where I will say that I read the book so you don't have to.... really, don't read it.  Ashes, by Ilse J. Bick, was dismal, but I doggedly worked my way through its tangles and nonsensical turns just so you don't have to face it. In yet another end-of-the-world scenario, Ashes walks the familiar path of zombie-land, sinking its teeth in a little too graphically, in my opinion, but that isn't my main gripe with the book.
   The story actually had potential at the beginning, with three separate characters being thrown together because of unexpected circumstances. Then, halfway through the story, just when I was beginning to be curious about how their relationships would be resolved, two of the characters disappeared. Fine, that's not unusual, as it is a good way for tension to be raised, but one usually expects some resolution at the end of the story. In this case, though, the story completely shifted gears, and headed deep into Biblical lands, which is also not unusual for end-of-the-world books, but some handle the theme better than others. This one was simply disturbing, and poorly constructed, not to mention hard to follow.
   The end of the book took another twist, again, unrelated to the two previous paths, and finally stumbled to a finish that actually hurt to read... so don't. Just don't.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Review--Every Day in Tuscany

   Books by Frances Mayes do not fall into the young adult category, of course, but anyone who likes to daydream and imagine, can see the appeal of her rich use of words, and her skill at painting landscapes with carefully paired words. Best known for her book, Under the Tuscan Sun, Mayes continues her love affair with the Tuscan countryside, food, and people, in the delightful Every Day in Tuscany. Slowly paced, like tomatoes ripening in the Mediterranean sun, this little book reminds one of the delights of keeping a daily journal, where recipes are jotted in the margins, and lengthy descriptions of the angle of the light are common-place. Frances Mayes has a gift for observation, and a savvy ability to see the beauty in the every-day.
   If you have not read her prior books, give them a read first, and like me, you will find yourself longing to follow her lead, as realization sets in that an old restored villa in the Italian countryside is not necessary to live life fully, and Carpe Diem... no matter where you are.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Pick list

If you haven't guessed already, this is a picks list. This list is comprised of books I have read this year and last year that were particularly enjoyable. They are not perfect, nor my favorite reads ever (that's a lie. There are, in fact, two books on this list that qualify as my favorites.) but I think they are all very good books. I hope you enjoy, and maybe find something that catches your fancy. 

In no particular order:

1: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith

2: The Truth About Forever, by Sarah Dessen

3: Clockwork Prince, by Cassandra Clare (But do the sensible thing and start with Clockwork Angel first, please. There is nothing more silly than reading a sequel before reading the first book.)

4: Anna and the French Kiss, by Stephanie Perkins

5: The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

6: The Tao of Pooh, by Benjamin Hoff

7: A Matter of Magic, by Patricia C. Wrede (This book is actually an omnibus containing the out of print Mairelon the Magician and The Magician's Ward.)

8: Going Bovine, by Libba Bray

9: Spilling Ink, by Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter (for my fellow aspiring writers)

10: And finally, because I am obliged to include it on any picks list, whether I have read it recently or not, Howl's Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones.


Monday, January 23, 2012

Review--The Hangman's Daughter

    Historical fiction is a particular favorite genre of mine, so I was looking forward to this one, though I was a bit dubious as to just how much "history" there was actually going to be. With The Hangman's Daughter, Oliver Pötzsch spins a yarn that has one foot well into a period of history that has always fascinated me. Extreme themes by today's standards, such a witchcraft, leprosy, the Plague, were common fare during the 17th Century, and Pötzsch employs them all to flesh out his tale, which was enjoyably old-fashioned.
    The title implies that the hangman's daughter is the main character, but she was only one of several, all of whom are outcasts because of their positions in society--the hangman, feared and despised, his daughter, shunned by proxy, and the young physician, who dares to think that there is more to medicine than blood-letting and leeches.
    The misplaced fear of witchcraft drives the story, which was fairly well-paced, though occasionally I felt it was a bit contrived and predictable. That said, it was refreshing to read a story about witches that didn't involve some soppy teen drama.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


   Ok, I must admit, ten pages in to this book I was worried... "Oh no, not another angsty teen drama with supernatural creatures who happen to be drop-dead gorgeous." Yes, there was one "hottie" as author, Kiersten White calls him, but he could also look downright frumpy if he wanted; he was a shapeshifter, after all. Yes, a shapeshifter. Paranormalcy is filled with those "not normal", or rather paranormal, as the title suggests.
   Our heroine, at heart a teen just trying to fit in, finds such normalcy as prom, boyfriends, school lockers--heck, school--to be beyond her experience. You see, Evie is special... dare we say, "paranormal". She sees beyond glamours, those shimmery shields that cover the true being within, be it a werewolf, a vampire, a hag, or, yes... that hottie shapeshifter.
   Throw in a faerie prophecy, some spunky teenage attitude, and you find yourself in the middle of a playful, supernatural romp. Paranormalcy was fun... not highbrow, not fine literature, but fun. So, if you are looking for something fun... and a hottie thrown in, then enjoy!

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Tao of Pooh (review)

This is just a little review
For something called The Tao of Pooh
Sweet Pooh-bear, and Benjamin Hoff
Will teach you a lot-- please don't scoff! 

So smart, so wise, and simply sweet
This cute book, is ever so neat
It might change you, if you so please
Open your mind--live life with ease

So you see now, is it funny
I love this book more than honey?
Give it a read--it's good for you
And discover a great taoist...



Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Review--The Eleventh Plague

   In case the title is not a give-away, The Eleventh Plague, by Jeff Hirsch, is another dystopian, world-gone-bad novel, and this one had me feeling as though I were sitting under a table, in my blanket fort as a 5 year old, playing "big bad world". You know the game, when you hide yourself away, pretending there is a bad world out there, kept away simply by staying on the magic blanket. Sometimes, you would venture out, daring the baddies out there to get you, knowing you could retreat to your safe place, and knowing they wren't real anyway.
   As in the familiar childhood game, all things in The Eleventh Plague end in a glorious "Kumbaya" moment, so sickly sweet it made me want to gag. Ok, so there is violence, death, and loss along the way, but that didn't manage to keep away the saccharin taste that lingered just beneath the surface. The many moments of tension seemed shallow, since I knew all was going to be well in the end, and I was going to be safe on my blanket. It was enough to make me not want to play the game.
   Maybe you'll have better luck.