All the reviews I should have written this summer

wool

At last, a post-apocalyptic hero the other half of the world can relate to! Not that there aren’t a lot of great reads featuring the current go-to hero/heroine, but as a reader with more than a few decades under her belt I do occasionally tire of the teenager-saves-the-world trope—there, I said it! I found a few chapters in the first half of the book a little slow. Not enough to put me off though and on the whole a fine offering from Howey (I’ve put Shift, and Dust on my reading list too).

 

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I really wanted to like this more than I actually did. I’m a big fan of the fairy tale genre and write them myself. (Ahem, that’s a BIG hint by-the-way if anyone wants to head over to my website and check them out!) They are much harder to write than you might think. First, there’s a rhythm and tone to the language that is very different from the way we normally think and speak. Second, maintaining a consistent internal mythology is critical. Except at the very beginning, you can’t just make up random shit as you go along; everything has to flow from what came before. Ms. Lo does a fabulous job of the former but, in my opinion, not the latter. I detected a few skips in the mythology. At one point Ash is warned explicitly “time passes differently” when spending a night in Fairy. In the morning she returns home to find <insert gasp of surprise here> it’s the very next day!—wait, what? Eh, maybe I’m being too picky and others might not be bothered by something like that. My other problem with Ash is that although it’s an LGBT retelling of Cinderella wherein Ash falls in love not with The Prince, but with his Huntress, all of the sexual tension is between Ash and The Fairy. He’s always just called “The Fairy”, no name given so I’m not being obtuse. The growing romance between The Huntress and Ash is sweet and tender but overshadowed by the physical intensity of Ash’s connection to The Fairy. Then there’s The Prince: sure, he’s a convenient hook to hang The Huntresses’ movements and actions on, and serves to frustrate the ambitions of Ashes’ wicked stepmother and stepsisters, but he feels like such a peripheral character I wonder why he’s even there. He’s a path that leads nowhere, is ultimately irrelevant, and could easily have been written out of the story altogether without impeding the narrative. Ash isn’t a bad book—it’s just not great, and I wanted it to be great.

 

assassin

Holy Predictable and Forgettable Batman! The only surprise in this entire book was when the BMW our bad guy drove during the car chase inexplicably turned into a Lexus and then back to a BMW by the end of the paragraph. Or maybe it was the other way around? I can’t remember. Now, because Josie Brown has no less than eight, four and five star reviewed novels on Amazon I’m just going to presume this is not her best work. A book based on this concept should have been—and could have been—hilarious. But it wasn’t. And I can’t decide if the uninspired, soft-core porn scenes made it bearable or truly cringe-worthy. The Housewife Assassin’s Handbook was so forgettable that at one point I did, in fact, forget I was reading it. Enough said.

 

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After reading so many great reviews I decided I had to read it myself. I love a flawlessly written historical novel and Hild hit the mark in every way. Detailed and intricate without falling into tedium, a compelling narrative pace, and characters with the depth and breadth of genuine humanity—no one-dimensional, trivial types here.

 

storiedlife

…and cue the applause. Nicely done Ms. Zevin. Nicely done. A book about books, and reading, and writing—and it takes place almost entirely in a bookstore! Okay, it’s not really about books. It’s about people, but the construct is genius, as is the writing. I loved A.J. (even as a bad-tempered drunk), Amelia, and Maya. I loved Lambaise and Ismay. I even loved that sorry, selfish, prick of a man, Daniel Parish; he was what he was and perfectly so. What else can one ask of any character? Funny, touching, revealing…I just can’t say enough great things about this book. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry goes straight to the top of my recommended reading list. Or it would if I had one. I may skip Zevin’s YA Birthright series but I’ll be keeping my eye out for a copy of Margarettown.

I Heart Flavia de Luce

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In the event the title of this review isn’t enough of a warning for you, beware: lavish gushing dead ahead!

For a quiet mid-century English village, Bishop’s Lacey has a remarkable number of murders. Happily, they also have Flavia de Luce to solve their mysteries. Young Flavia; eleven year-old scion of a genteel family fallen on post-war hard times, budding chemist, poison aficionado, and smart-as-a-whip detective is, I think, destined for literary immortality. She’s both endearing and prickly—a combination I find irresistible in a character.

When she’s not too busy in her long-dead Uncle’s abandoned laboratory conducting chemistry experiments, plotting to poison one or both of her uppity big sisters, or flying around Bishop’s Lacey on a bicycle named Gladys, Flavia is poking her nose where all the adults, particularly the police, are quite sure it doesn’t belong. Her investigations land her in a spot of trouble now and again…okay, they frequently land her in dangerous situations, but our intrepid girl seldom needs much rescuing and even the local police detective has to admit the pint-sized Poirot is at least as smart as he is. Maybe smarter. She’s certainly smarter than her two sisters, who delight in tormenting Flavia in a variety of ways. Their chief tool of torture being the claim she’s not really their sister at all, but was adopted, a decision their parents soon regretted only to find the orphanage refused to take her back. (About now, if my two big sisters are reading this, they’re saying to themselves so that’s why she loves this Flavia creature so much! Because you see, I can relate, having been put through the identical torment myself as a child. I understand completely the equal parts disdain, fascination, affection, and anxiety that so thoroughly muddles her relationship with them. In another time and place I might have been Flavia. Although, I haven’t plotted to poison my sisters…lately.)

But hold on, you say, is there anything to commend these books outside of working through your childhood trauma and angst? Well, of course. Flavia and her sisters aren’t the only interesting, fully realized, quirky personalities inhabiting Bishop’s Lacey and its environs. A whole slew of characters—shady, colorful, and otherwise—populate the pages and make them come alive. Bishop’s Lacey feels like a real place, albeit with a weirdly high homicide rate. Bradley’s prose is direct and clean, baits and hints are doled out carefully without giving away too much, and every sentence moves the plot forward making for a quick-paced and easy read.

A Red Herring Without Mustard is the third book of a series. I recommend starting with the first book, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, but strictly speaking, it isn’t necessary. Mr. Bradley does a great job of providing enough backstory in the second and third novels without boring readers who are returning to Bishop’s Lacey to see what Flavia might be getting up to next. (I for one already have the 4th book, I’m just saving it for vacation reading next month.)

The Museum of Extraordinary Things

http://www.amazon.com/Museum-Extraordinary-Things-Novel/dp/1451693567/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1397159165&sr=1-1&keywords=the+museum+of+extraordinary+things

 

If there really were a Museum of Extraordinary Things, this book would be in it.

I’ve been a fan of Alice Hoffman ever since the day I picked her novel Second Nature out of a teetering stack on the bargain table—for a mere $2.99! Best three bucks I ever spent. Like Second Nature, The Museum of Extraordinary Things is Alice Hoffman at her best; painting the complicated topography of the human heart with a subtle and expert brush. Alice—yeah, I call her Alice in my head instead of Hoffman or Ms. Hoffman, because I love her books so much I feel like she’s a good friend—anyway, as I was saying: Alice gives us a prism of magic through which we can view an ordinary world rendered fantastic without succumbing to belabored and clichéd romanticism, and she can tackle sometimes difficult, distasteful, even deplorable subjects, without resorting to stridency or sermonizing.

I wish I could write like her, and that’s the highest praise I can think of.

If you’ve been dying to read a book review dashed off in 10 minutes, after 10 pm & 5 millligrams of Ambien…

then this is your lucky day.

Does that old stand-by if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all apply when writing a book review? Hmm…well, I can’t fault Ms. Matthews’s scholarship. Dissidents, Irish Republican Women 1923-1941 is clearly well researched and logically presented. It just isn’t terribly interesting—and I’m not talking about the subject matter.

I like history. I have a particularly keen interest in Irish history and have read my share on the Easter uprising, the civil war, and the establishment of the Republic. Most of it written from the perspective of the men involved in the pivotal events. So when I stumbled across Dissidents I thought:  great, a chance to hear the voices of the women. After all, they were freedom fighters too, spys and gun-runners (and something else really profound that I can’t think of right now because I’ve already taken a sleeping pill). Instead I slogged through almost 300 pages of dry recitation of facts and figures. Those voices were notably silent and I came away not knowing very much more about them at all.

History is fascinating, full of colorful and remarkable characters, and it’s entirely possible to write about historical people and events in a way that’s approachable and engaging without sacrificing veracity or scholarly merit. Consider Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford, Nancy Goldstone’s Four Queens. Or How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill, and In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez; all of which were compulsively readable (and all of which I highly recommend!). Dissidents fell short and fell flat and that’s too bad because those women deserve more.

http://www.amazon.com/Dissidents-Irish-Republican-Women-1923-1941-ebook/dp/B008B7OWT4/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1394601558&sr=1-1&keywords=dissidents+ann+matthews

Peculiar Children

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Just in case you’re part of that minuscule one half of one tenth of a percent of the reading population who hasn’t read either of Ransom Riggs’s Peculiar Children books…or hasn’t seen someone else reading one, or hasn’t heard anyone talking about them…I’m going to go ahead and review them for you.

Generally speaking I’m not a YA fan—and I mean the genre, not the actual people. Most young adults I know are pretty interesting once you pry the phones out of their hands and the ear buds out of their ears. Maybe the genre doesn’t appeal to me because I’m not a YA. I’m more of YAHA (or what some have called an IA…but to hell with them).

Anyway, back to these Peculiar Children. I can sum up my opinion in two words: read them. But two words does not a blog post make so let me elaborate. Don’t be misled—as I almost was—by the YA label and pass them over. These books are cleverly plotted and tightly crafted. Mystery abounds and the pace is urgent. The accompanying vintage and often bizarre photographs are more than just a gimmick, the grainy images serve to deepen the sense of mystery. In other words you’ll probably find yourself up late at night with the open book in your hands, looking at the clock and thinking Okay, just one more chapter but then I really have to get some sleep more than once.

Speaking of having an open book in your hand, I highly recommend just that, a Book with a capitol B and emphasized. The paper and print kind. I’m not a book snob…I love my e-reader for many reasons. It’s much lighter to carry around than 2 or 3 books—especially on a trip when I want to take not just whatever I’m currently reading but what I might want to read next in case I finish one (does anyone else do that?), it prevents even more books from stacking up on the floors of nearly every room in my house, you can shop for books in the middle of the night and get instant gratification. But in this case I’d go for the paper and print volume.

I read Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children on my e-reader and found myself wishing I had the Book. The pictures did not display all that well and I felt like I was missing out. When Hollow City came out I bought the Book—not the book, and a paper and print edition of Miss Peregrine’s etc, etc, to go with it. I’ve given them pride of place on my Bookshelf—with an empty space next to them just waiting for the third volume.

Yes Mr. Riggs, that is a thinly disguised hint.

Books 1 & 2 of Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards Series (I haven’t read #3 yet but plan to)

Thieves prosper, the rich remember. So goes the motto of the Gentleman Bastards, a league of Robin Hood-esque bandits who steal from the rich and give to…well, themselves. Each one of the Gentleman Bastards was plucked from the mean streets of Camorr as a young orphan and trained in larceny by Father Chains, a priest of the Crooked Warden. They aren’t ordinary thieves, but thieves on a holy mission. It’s their calling to make certain the rich stay humble, that they do not forget that even they are not safe from the ill chances of life, and should not forget those less fortunate. But after years spent successfully robbing Camorr’s elite upper classes blind, the Gentleman Bastard’s own luck takes a turn for the worse leaving the surviving members penniless and on the run. I’ve only read the first 2 of the series but loved both. Scott Lynch’s fast-talking and inventive thieves are intelligent, audacious, and endearing; criminals with hearts of gold as it were, and the scene crafting absolutely seamless and compelling. Full of both humor and pathos, balanced with plenty of action and swordplay, and a cast of engaging if slightly shady characters, this series could easily make the transition to the big screen (or medium screen) and be a hit. Seriously, are you listening Peter Jackson?…HBO?

Book 1 The Lies of Locke Lamora

Book 2 Red Seas Under Red Skies

Book 3 The Republic of Thieves

http://www.amazon.com/Lies-Locke-Lamora-Scott-Lynch/dp/055358894X