Monday, July 30, 2012

The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde

Submitted by Lucas, teen reviewer:

I very much enjoyed reading The Last Dragonslayer by New York Times bestselling author Jasper Fford.  It is a light and humorous book featuring Quarkbeasts, wizards, dragons, and magic in a modern setting. The main character, Jennifer Strange, is a sixteen-year-old indentured female who is forced into running a somewhat crazy magic business (charming away groundhogs, rewiring houses, and unclogging drains). Sadly, in the past few decades, magical power has declined dramatically, and sorcerers are not nearly as strong as they were. However, Big Magic is stirring, and with it a chance to either destroy magic forever, or provide a much needed boost in magical power.

If you are the kind of person who loves dark and serious books about magic, such as The Lord of the Rings or The Mortal Instruments series, don't read this book. This book almost never takes itself seriously, with funny but unlikely conversations taking place in a seemingly crazy world with the only sane person being the main character (it resembles A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in this aspect).  Overall, if you are looking for a laugh and don't take magic too seriously, grab this book before it gets checked out!

The Last Dragonslayer is scheduled to be released in October, 2012.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

Will Schwalbe and his mother Mary Anne have always talked about books together. So when Mary Anne is diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer, mother and son use their time sitting at the cancer center (in waiting rooms, in exam suites, in the room where Mary Anne receives her chemotherapy treatments) to formalize their conversations into a "book club."  Through re-reading old favorites and swapping new titles, Will and Mary Anne find themselves connecting with one another in deep and meaningful ways.  Discussing books gives them a safe framework for talking about some of the issues that weigh heavily on them as Mary Anne's cancer rapidly progresses: faith, family, bravery, and ultimately death.

I loved this book. It was such a beautifully written tribute to Schwalbe's mother that when I finished reading it, I felt as if I had known Mary Anne personally and was grieving her along with her family.  Her sense of humor in the face of a truly humorless situation, her ceaseless commitment to the causes she believed in, and her devotion to her family were inspiring.  The compiled bibliography of all the novels Will & Mary Anne discussed in their "book club" served as an added bonus to what was already a gift of a book.

The End of Your Life Book Club comes out this October.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Throne of Glass by Sarah Maas

Celaena Sardothien is a teen-aged assassin. Celaena is the main character in Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas. When she was a child, Celaena’s country was destroyed and her parents murdered in their beds by the King of Adarlan, who also eradicated magic from the world (or tried to). Celaena was found by a cruel master who nonetheless took care of her and trained her to be an assassin. A year before the book begins, she was betrayed, caught, and sent to a death camp. After a year as a slave in the mines, she is visited by the Captain of the Royal Guard and the Crown Prince of Adarlan.

The King is having a competition. The winner will become his champion and enforcer. The Prince has chosen Celaena as his sponsored potential champion. If she bests the other 23 competitors in a series of tests, she will become the champion, serve the King for four years, and then gain her freedom. If she loses, she’ll go back to the mines.

Throne of Glass kept my attention and I enjoyed reading it. It has a nice balance of action and character development. I’m not a fan of love triangles, so that annoyed me a bit, and I also have some major issues with Celaena’s attraction to the son of the man who caused her parents’ death. She does not seem to have any inner struggle over her attraction (and I admit, I found the Captain of the Royal Guard a lot more interesting than the Prince). Still Throne of Glass was a good read.

Anyone who loves fantasy adventure with a strong female lead should give Throne of Glass a try. It’s very entertaining.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Silver by Andrew Motion

With a style echoing that of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, author Andrew Motion has written a sequel to that classic tale of pirates and adventure. Building on the fact that not all the treasure had been removed from the island in the original story, Motion sets the stage for a return trip to that benighted place in order to retrieve the remaining silver. The plan is the idea of aging Long John Silver who is living in London. He sends his daughter, Matty, to convince Jim Hawkin’s son, also named Jim, to steal his father’s map of Treasure Island and come on the voyage. For Matty, her share of the silver offers the opportunity for a life on her own, away from the tavern her parents run in the docks area of London.

The story follows the developing friendship of these two young people as well as the voyage to the island, what is found there and the voyage back. The cover of the book says that  “Motion has written a truly accomplished work of literature - rollicking, heartfelt, and utterly brilliant - that would make Robert Louis Stevenson proud.”  While Stevenson would probably say Motion has done a creditable job, with literary merit keeping in the spirit of his original story, he might find the book hardly rollicking, only modestly heartfelt and less than brilliant. Of course, “Brilliant” is a common, frequently used British expression of enthusiasm, no matter the actual degree of greatness. After all, Motion is British and a former Poet Laureate knighted for his service to literature in 2009. His book was originally published in Great Britain. Its publication date in the U.S. is August 2012.

While entertained by the story and its well-continued style of the original, I was not as thrilled as I had hoped to be upon reading the cover. At the end of Silver one is also left with a feeling that Motion could write a sequel. Maybe Tarnished Silver?

Cynthia Heather

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Every once in a while I read a book that is so good I’m not sure if I can write a review. There is something about reviewing an amazing book that is horribly intimidating—nothing I could ever say will do this justice! Frankly, I find it nerve-racking to comment on something so purely awesome. What is there to say besides “wow”? Cheryl Strayed’s autobiography Wild was almost one of those books for me. Is there any aspect could I possibly rehash? How could any explanation of this book be enough? Then I decided I enjoyed Wild so much I had to talk about it, no matter how inadequately.

I remember when I first heard about the book Eat, Pray, Love.  Many of my most beloved friends raved about how spectacular it was. In their words, I absolutely had to experience this journey of a self discovery. Needless to say, my expectations were high. Then a funny thing happened, I couldn’t even hack it to Italy. I disliked the book that much. Who is this whinny, self-absorbed woman? I really wanted to like it, to experience the same camaraderie with the narrator as my friends, but I couldn’t. Where am I going with this? Well, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is everything I hoped for in Eat, Pray, Love and then some. She is a woman caught up in pain who has made some self-destructive decisions. The key difference is that I found Cheryl Strayed to be likeable and genuine. I also might be impartial to any story about hiking. Might.

Say what you will about Oprah, but her book-selecting minions know their stuff. There is a reason she resurrected Oprah’s Book Club for this title—it’s that good, people. I strongly recommend Wild to any summer reader looking for an adventurous escape.  

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

In Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell discusses Hawaiian and American history, with an emphasis on the New England missionaries who went to Hawaii to convert the natives in the early 1800s. They were some of the most influential “unfamiliar fishes” referred to by minister, educator, and historian David Malo: “If a big wave comes in, large and unfamiliar fishes will come from the dark ocean, and when they see the small fishes of the shallows they will eat them up.  The white man’s ships have arrived with clever men from the big countries.  They know our people are few in number and our country is small, they will devour us.”

This is not a traditional history book. Vowell mingles information about her research, notes on outings with her family, commentary on the food she is eating etc. while laying out Hawaiian history. Some readers will not like her snarky tone, but I found the book extremely funny and educational. For example, she writes, “all missions are inherently patronizing to the host culture. That’s what a mission is – a bunch of strangers showing up somewhere uninvited to inform the locals they are wrong.” I agree with this completely; others may find it misguided or offensive.

Like the histories of all native peoples, it’s a sad book. I’ve been to Hawaii twice and it is a beautiful place, weirdly Americanized yet not at all “North American” way out there in the middle of the Pacific. Although the book cannot be described as unbiased, it is balanced; the author does not paint the Hawaiians as blameless in the Americanization of their islands and culture.

It is clear that Vowell did an immense amount of research while writing Unfamiliar Fishes. It introduced me to a lot of new information and I’m glad I read it. Two of the library's book clubs had lively discussions about it.

A Woman of Consequence by Anna Dean

I greatly enjoy Anna Dean’s Dido Kent series of mysteries. Set in England during the same time period as Jane Austen’s works, they feature Dido Kent, a single woman in her thirties who has a talent for solving mysteries. Considered a spinster at her “advanced” age, Dido nonetheless has a widowed admirer who does not quite know what to make of Dido’s intelligence and unusual spirit.

A Woman of Consequence dragged a bit in the middle compared to the first two books in the series, but the author is a good writer and it didn't take me long to get through the slow part. I very much like Miss Kent and look forward to developments in her romance with Mr. Lomax. If you are a fan of Jane Austen or gentle historical mysteries, this series is definitely worth a look. The first book in the series is Bellfield Hall, which the library owns in both regular and large print.

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Ruins of Lace by Iris Anthony

Lace can be a thing of beauty, threads intertwined in intricate and often delicate patterns. Yet the history of lace has an ironic dark side, no less intricate, but tainted with corruption, smuggling and the harsh labor conditions of those who made it. Ruins of Lace takes place during the reign of Louis XIII of France in the 1630s. Lace was outlawed by the king and smuggling of it, across the border from Flanders, became a dangerous, lucrative business. Anthony weaves information regarding the making of lace and its illicit path to France with the interwoven lives of her characters. Each chapter is told from the viewpoint of the character. The characters even include a dog which was one of thousands used to smuggle lace. The chapters narrated by a hapless border guard are engaging and wryly told. There are characters with whom one feels compassion and others who create disgust. In the end, one realizes that while the non-living thing, lace, is considered to be of great worth, each of the people, living beings, is struggling to find his or her worth, in their own eyes and in the eyes of others. Each has a past, sometimes interconnected, that influences their present stories. While the book comes to an exciting conclusion, the reader is left with a little uncertainty. Perhaps the author is leaving her options open for a sequel. All in all, it was a light, entertaining book that also educates the reader about lace and its dual nature.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Dark Companion by Marta Acosta

Submitted by Sharon, teen reviewer:

After coming to Birch Grove Academy from Helmsdale, Jane thinks she might actually be in less danger.  Everyone there compares her to the scholarship student before her, who mysteriously left to live with an unknown uncle.  With the help of Lucian and Jack Radcliffe, Jane discovers a more tragic and scarier truth than she ever thought she would.  Dark Companion was well plotted and the turns were so well planned, I thought.  Marta Acosta did a really, really good job, in my opinion.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

         Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is a book separated into three parts. Each part slowly reveals more details about a domestic crime that leaves a small town caught in the middle of a high profile case revolving around the disappearance of a woman, Amy Elliott, who may or may not have been murdered by her down on his luck husband, Nick Dunne. The book centers around the married couple who have been suffering problems ever since they both lost their jobs as writers, and left the bustling city of New York to move back to Missouri in order for Nick to be closer to his parents, who are both suffering from various illnesses.
            The first part of the story places the readers inside the unreliable mind of Nick who admits he has lied to the police numerous times since the start of the investigation began on his missing wife, and is clearly hiding something, and also allows readers glimpses inside of his wife’s diary, further solidifying that Nick is not the person he says he is. He comes off as a sleaze, but is he rotten enough to kill his wife? As the book continues on it answers some of these questions while raising others, and eventually reveals details that Amy was not the saint she was shown to be either. Was Amy murdered, and if she was did Nick do it? If she was murdered, did she deserve to be?
            This book is centered on characters and settings that reflect an era of job loss and home foreclosures. Gloria Flynn channels the suffering that many home owners have felt in recent years due to a changing economy and raises questions that have to do with the American society as a whole, as well as individuals within this society. Each of the characters in this book have their flaws, and most of them are very unlikeable as a whole, but Flynn has a way of getting the reader to sympathize and root for characters that were not likeable in the least. Nick comes off as arrogant and guilty, but by the second part of the book she has managed to create a situation where Nick is not redeemed, but he may seem to be the lesser of two evils. She makes the reader think, and she brings up interesting perspectives about the institution of marriage, the economy, and even if there is such a thing as true love. The plot draws the reader in, but the novel is not all cheese, and brings up topics that can be digested long after the twists and turns are revealed.           
            Gone Girl starts off seeming like a run of the mill crime novel, but evolves into a race against the clock plot that leaves the reader turning the page constantly to find out what will happen next. The book channels Stephen King at points, perhaps because it is a book about writers, and also brings to mind suspense novels from the author Dennis LeHane. It can be frustrating at times because of how unlikeable most of the characters are, but Flynn still manages to make the characters relatable so that the reader identifies somewhat with them. I give this book four out of five nails in the coffin!
        Here is an excerpt from the beginning of the book if you want to see if it grabs your interest:


The Red Chamber by Pauline A. Chen

An epic novel set in eighteenth-century Beijing, this book deals with the lives of three women and describes in detail what life was like for them. At first I was intimated by the names I couldn't pronounce, but that ceased to be an issue as I read further. The author does a splendid job of describing the customs of that time, and I learned a lot about the Chinese culture. I was amazed by the family traditions and this has encouraged me to learn more about this facinating people. We are first introduced to a young woman who lives a simple life in the provinces and has travelled to the big city to meet her relatives, who are very wealthy. This is where we meet the entire family, and the author spends the right amount of time developing each character. It is an interesting study of family dynamics, so when things take a turn for the worse, we get to really see what these characters are like. If you have ever wanted to learn more about eighteenth-century Beijing in a fine storytelling format, this would be a great book for you!

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks

Budo, the main character of Matthew Dicks' third novel, isn't real.  He is an imaginary friend, conjured up in the mind of eight-year-old Max Delaney.  Max is on the autism spectrum (presumably with a form of Asperger's Syndrome, although I'm not sure the book ever formally gives a diagnosis), and as such has some difficulty connecting with his peers and navigating changes in routines.  Budo provides Max with companionship and support through these challenges. And when a staff member at Max's school goes unhinged and abducts Max off of school grounds, Budo has to go above and beyond to try to save his friend.

Overall, I didn't love this book.  The human characters seemed one-dimensional and formulaic, and the central kidnapping plot felt so far-fetched that I had a hard time getting upset by it.  I did, however, enjoy the kind of parallel universe Dicks creates for Budo and the other imaginary friends. It's a clever concept, this idea that there are tons of imaginary beings coexisting with humans, all of which are limited only by the imagination of the kids who create them for friendship.  Some are imagined to look like fully-formed humans, some are odd human-animal hybrids, and one is even a spoon with eyes.

If you enjoyed Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, you'll likely enjoy this one.  Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend comes out August 21st.