Friday, February 10, 2017

TEXAS GOTHIC


Review of TEXAS GOTHIC by ROSEMARY CLEMENT-MOORE
(first in the GOODNIGHT FAMILY series)

Amy comes from a family of witches, but doesn’t seem to have any magical gifts of her own. She hopes ranch-sitting for her aunt in Texas will be a nice, normal break from her crazy life. Well, she can forget that dream when she stumbles across a skeleton, starts finding herself haunted by angry ghosts, and can’t help antagonizing the cute - if tightly wound - guy next-door.

I’m not normally one for ghost stories, but I met this author at a conference and wanted to give her book a try. So glad I did. Themes are an easy way to sort what we expect we’ll like, but they’re not everything. And this is so my kind of book!

Above all, I loved the novel for the protagonist and her unique but familiar voice. Amy comes from one of my favorite character molds: a strong-willed girl who hides whatever insecurities she does have beneath a thick layer of humor. Despite being recognizable as a type, though, Amy still feels like a distinct individual with her own quirks and surprises worked into her personality.

Oh, but the humor. The writing here feels one of a kind, filled with unusual phrases that tell us plenty about Amy’s state of mind while earning laughs. In some ways, Amy puts me in mind of Brigit Jones a little, always finding herself in embarrassing situations and unable to filter herself as much as she would like. Let me share the first line, for example: “The goat was in the tree again.”

There’s a strong romance element running through this novel. I’ve mentioned plenty of times that I like romance, but I’m a very critical romance reader. When a romance meets my high standards, it can be my favorite part of a story, but when it doesn’t it’s where I’ll hit the hardest in a review. TEXAS GOTHIC falls in the former category. Neither character is portrayed as “perfect” but nor is the guy an idolized jerk. In other words, the author avoids all the cliché pitfalls of writing romance that can wind me up and instead presents a sweet story about two people who challenge each other and both come out better for it.  

Oh, oh, oh! And as a crazy dog lady, I loved what a big role Amy’s pack of rowdy dogs plays in the story. Easy tip to make me like a book more: add a dog. Even more: add another dog. It’s that simple.

I didn’t realize this is the first in a series. For one thing, the author does an excellent job writing this first book so it can be read as a standalone. No cliffhanger ending here! Nevertheless, I cannot wait to read the second.

Friday, February 3, 2017

ABARAT


Review of ABARAT by CLIVE BARKER
(first in the ABARAT series)

I first read this book back in college, on the recommendation of a friend, and remember being beguiled by the complex, extraordinary world Barker crafted. This one lives up to a second read as well as my flattering memories.

Candy lives a mundane life in a small town with her mother and alcoholic, abusive father. Then one day everything stops making sense, but becomes a magical adventure in the breakdown of logic. A sea sweeps in to the middle of a field - yes, a sea - and pulls Candy from her world into another: the world of Abarat. Here each hour of the day is an island, each one strange and different in its own way. There’s also an island for the 25th hour, the time out of time, but we won’t get into that yet.

In case you haven’t caught on, this book is weird. Writing weird is difficult, because tastes vary so much. Sometimes I find weird stories and I mean the adjective as a confused insult. In this case, when I call ABARAT “weird” I mean wonderfully, beautifully, enchantingly weird. Exactly my kind of weird. From invented creatures to how the magic works to surprising plot twists, here you’ll find page after page of the unexpected...and it feels like that sea swept you out to another world, too.

My only complaint has more to do with the specific edition of the book I read. The author is also an artist who paints dozens of images from his stories. The first time I read this book I borrowed it from the friend who recommended it, and her copy had the author’s paintings sprinkled throughout the story, almost every page. When I decided to re-read this one, I bought my own copy, not even realizing it was a copy without the illustrations. Get the illustrations! Get the illustrations! They add so much to the story...and the weirdness.

This tale transported me to Abarat and has lingered in the back of my mind for years. It’s one of those rare books that feels like its own kind of magic and reminds me why I’m in love with reading.

Friday, January 27, 2017

INKHEART


Review of INKHEART by CORNELIA FUNKE
(first in the INKHEART trilogy, translated by ANTHEA BELL)

I first read this back in college and it has been one of my all-time favorites ever since, so when I started re-reading books for reviewing here this was one of the first ones to come to mind.

Meggie lives with her father and, though they’re both avid readers, he refuses to ever read aloud to her. She doesn’t recall exactly what happened to her mother, only that she went away a long time ago. Then one night a mysterious stranger lurking outside their house brings a warning for Meggie’s father and starts the ball rolling on an adventure Meggie could have never imagined.

Books about books have a special place in my heart for obvious reasons. There are stories within stories here. There’s the story we’re reading. Then there’s the book that all Meggie’s problem revolve around. Then there are all the books she and her fellow readers reference, as well as quotes from other books opening each chapter.

I especially adore magic systems that have to do with reading and books. Minor spoiler coming, so skip the rest of this paragraph if you want to start this book knowing as little as possible. Meggie’s father Mo has the unique power to read characters out of books and into our world when he reads aloud. I love, love, love, most any literary magic system, but this is still my all-time favorite spin on bookish magic.

Naturally, I like a lot of the characters, too, for the simple reason that they’re readers. From curmudgeonly Aunt Elinor to quiet, imaginative Meggie I can relate to each individual. If they’re not exactly me, as someone with a lot of reader friends I at least know someone like each and every one of them.

I mentioned that I only ever re-read books to review ones here that I actually read long before I started blogging. One fun aspect of reviewing something I’m re-reading, though, is noting which books stuck with me and which didn’t as much. INKHEART stands out among all the books I re-read as one I adored the first time, as much the second, and that stayed with me all the years in between.

Lots of glorious bibliophilia here!

Friday, January 20, 2017

THE REPTILE ROOM


Review of THE REPTILE ROOM by LEMONY SNICKET
(second in the A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS series)

After escaping from the evil Count Olaf and his plot to steal their family fortune, the three orphans are sent to live with their Uncle Montgomery. He’s a kind man who studies and collects snakes, and plans to take them on an exciting research expedition. It sounds too good to be true, and for such unfortunate orphans, it is.

It’s a theme throughout this series that adults are mostly incompetent. Often well-intentioned, but incompetent nonetheless. Every time the children figure out what’s going on, their greatest battle is convincing an adult who can help that they’re correct. In general, the adults in this series seem more comfortable doing nothing, a portrayal that, while at times frustrating for the reader, might be therapeutic for real-life children who feel they aren’t being heard by the adults around them.

Similarly, I have heard this series critiqued for being too dark for a young audience, but I think many children can relate to feeling helpless. The Baudelaire children are a helpless hyperbole, and yet they never use that as an excuse not to try. They’re capable and resourceful and work together. At its core, this is a tale about being a good person even when the world isn’t being good to you.

There’s also a fun story within a story in this series, as the author crafts an entire false persona for himself that ties into the plot. The dedications allude to a mysterious Beatrice. The author bios are odd and unsettling. The letter to the editors are further fiction with hints at what’s to come in the next book.

I love the humor in this series. There’s a very wry type of wit that understates the joke to make it all the funnier.

Unfortunately, though, this book does not have a happy ending.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Favorite Books Read in 2016


For those who have been following my blog throughout the year, the books on this list won’t come as a surprise. I write long reviews, though, so below you can find much shorter descriptions of my favorite books from 2016. All the books I reviewed or authors I interviewed are linked to the original post.

Note that these are books I read in 2016, not necessarily books published in 2016.

1.     CREWEL by GENNIFER ALBIN

In a world where gifted people can weave time and matter on a physical tapestry, Adelice stands out as extraordinarily talented. Only her invaluable skill keeps her alive, since she boldly questions and challenges her superiors in a society that wants to make every decision for every person without any resistance.

2.     EVERY OTHER DAY by JENNIFER LYNN BARNES

Kali is your cliché over-the-top, kick-ass, invincible heroine...some days - but every other day she’s a normal teenager. Then Kali spots a mark on a girl at her high school that means that girl will die within the day. Unfortunately, this happens on one of Kali’s “normal” days.

3.     SHARK GIRL by KELLY BINGHAM

When fifteen-year-old Jane loses her arm in a shark attack, she also loses her artistic talent and her privacy. She can’t sketch anymore without her good hand and now the media expects her to act out the part of inspiring survivor.

4.     WRITTEN IN RED by ANNE BISHOP

Meg is a blood prophet, which means when someone cuts her skin she sees visions of the future. She’s held captive so this power can be sold as a service, but she escapes and flees to live with the Others. While dangerous themselves, the Others don’t abide by human law and have no legal obligation to return a human fugitive.

5.     THE GATHERING STORM, THE UNFAILING LIGHT, and THE MORNING STAR by ROBIN BRIDGES

Set in 19th century Russia, this series spins a captivating story of glittering balls and dark magic. Duchess Katerina hides her necromancer power until a vampire prince threatens her family unless she marries him. Now her taboo gift might be the only thing that can protect her.

6.     TELL ME THREE THINGS by JULIE BUXBAUM

Jessie’s still reeling from her mother’s death when her father abruptly remarries and moves them to a different state to live with the new stepmom and her son. Los Angeles is a big change from Chicago and Jessie might be lost at her pretentious new school if not for the help of a mysterious stranger who emails her tips on how to navigate the local social politics.

7.     THE PHOENIX DANCE by DIA CALHOUN

In this twist on “Twelve Dancing Princesses,” Phoenix wants to be a shoemaker but her manic depression makes her an unreliable employee, sometimes brilliant but other times apathetic. When her mentor loses his appointment as the official royal shoemaker since the princesses keep wearing through their shoes overnight, Phoenix takes it upon herself to figure out what’s really happening.

8.     PLACEBO JUNKIES by J.C. CARLESON

Audie scams drug trials for a living, but she and her friend have a plan to sign up for as many as they can without getting caught and really cash out. Trust the author with this book, even when things don’t quite make sense. Drug addled Audie is an unreliable narrator and things aren’t what they seem. 

9.     THE FAIRY’S RETURN by GAIL CARSON LEVINE

This last tale in Levine’s charming “Princess Tales” series spoofs “The Golden Goose.” When Princess Lark stops so much as smiling, her father declares she can marry the first prince to make her laugh. We know that will be our hero Robin, but not yet how this commoner will get around the prince requirement.

10.  BETWEEN THE SEA AND THE SKY by JACLYN DOLAMORE

Mermaid Esmerine has always had a love for all things on land, which is why she’s one of the select few chosen to become a siren, who can walk on land with the help of a magical belt. When her sister’s belt is stolen, forcing her to stay on land, Esmerine enlists the help of a childhood friend, the winged bibliophile Alander.

11.  NOBODY’S PRINCESS by ESTHER FRIESNER

Everyone knows the story of Helen of Troy, but usually Helen is depicted as a passive object in the story, a trophy. Friesner instead presents an active, determined young Helen who wants more for herself than a husband and children.


Ibbotson writes sweet, young adult, historical romances, each featuring a smart, self-sufficient, kind-hearted heroine. From pre-war Austria to the Amazon, these novels are rooted in setting and each feature a wide cast of lovable characters.

13.  ON WRITING by STEPHEN KING

Part memoir and part writing guide, this book follows King’s journey to his successful writing career and is packed full of helpful advice and insight for aspiring authors. Writers and King fans alike will enjoy this medley of personal biography and motivational writing tips.

14.  FINDING AUDREY by SOPHIE KINSELLA

Audrey has incapacitating social anxiety that keeps her homeschooled and friendless. Then her brother’s friend Linus starts taking an interest in her and reaching out for a connection. Only Kinsella could give this premise so much heart and hilarity.


This true crime book follows the story of Lucie Blackman, a young British woman murdered in Japan. From the culprit’s mindset to Lucie’s work as a hostess to the media reaction over her disappearance, this book is packed with fascinating discussion-worthy content.

16.  BURNING MIDNIGHT by WILL MCINTOSH

A while ago colorful spheres popped up all over the world. Find two of the same color and you can “burn” them for some kind of personal enhancement: taller, stronger, smarter, etc. Welfare kid Sully buys these spheres and resells them for a small profit. When he teams up with a sphere hunter, they wind up finding a sphere no one has seen before...and they’re not ready for the revelation of what burning it will do. 

17.  ESPERANZA RISING by PAM MUNOZ RYAN

Esperanza lives a privileged life on her ranch in Mexico until her father is murdered by bandits and her family forced to abandon all their wealth and flee to the United States. Now Esperanza must work hard for a meager living. When her mother falls ill as well, Esperanza’s character will truly be tested.

18.  HOLDING UP THE UNIVERSE by JENNIFER NIVEN

After Libby’s mom died, she ate her feelings and became morbidly obese. Though still overweight, Libby finally lost enough to return to high school - where she meets Jack, a popular jerk who secretly has face blindness. Jack might be better at blending in, but Libby has what really counts: a resilient spirit and maturity beyond her years.

19.  ENDERS by LISSA PRICE

This sequel to STARTERS picks up after Callie overthrew the organization that “rented” young bodies to the wealthy. Now people are hunting down the Metals, those with a chip in their brain enabling their body to be controlled by another mind. As a Metal herself, Callie goes on the run and tries to pick up and help as many others like her as she can.

20.  I AM PRINCESS X by CHERIE PRIEST

As kids, best friends Libby and May invented a character called Princess X and together created a series of comics featuring their strong, wacky heroine. Then Libby dies in a car crash, but three years later May finds a Princess X web comic. The storyline contains details only Libby would know and even hints that maybe Libby didn’t die but was actually kidnapped. 

21.  THE SOUND AND THE FURRY by SPENCER QUINN

This latest installment in the Chet and Bernie mystery series has private investigator Bernie and his loyal dog Chet working a missing person’s case. Narrated from Chet’s canine perspective, the voice sometimes comically strays from the point or fixates on inconsequential details.

22.  CLEOPATRA: A LIFE by STACY SCHIFF

Usually portrayed as a manipulative seductress, records suggest Cleopatra wasn’t actually that attractive. Her notable charm came from her intelligence and charisma. This biography chronicles Cleopatra’s unusual and fascinating life and all her stunning endeavors.

23.  THE BAD BEGINNING by LEMONY SNICKET

Siblings Violet, Klaus, and Sunny are sent to live with their relative, Count Olaf, upon their parents’ untimely deaths. They quickly learn their new guardian is a cruel brute set on stealing their family fortune and then killing them off, too. This morbid series features a unique sense of witty, wacky humor.

24.  POISON STUDY by MARIA V. SNYDER

Yelena’s about to be executed for murder when she’s offered an out: become the Commander’s food taster instead. Better to risk death than walk into guaranteed death, so Yelena accepts. However, surviving won’t be easy. The father of her victim wants her dead and she seems to be developing magical abilities in a land where such powers mean a death sentence.

25.  AND I DARKEN by KIERSTEN WHITE

In this dark, epic fantasy tale, White crafts a story of doomed friendship. When royal siblings Lada and Radu are given to an enemy as collateral for peace they meet the future Sultan Mehmed. Together the three form a powerfully bonded but toxic friendship triangle that will both build each other up and wreck destruction in all their lives.

26.  THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR by NICOLA YOON

Can two people fall in love in one day? Natasha is a cynical skeptic due to be deported tomorrow and Daniel a hopeless romantic who wants something else for himself than his parents’ plan that he become a doctor. On paper, they don’t make sense, but Yoon crafts her characters with care and the chemistry between them is utterly convincing.

Friday, December 30, 2016

I AM PRINCESS X

Review of I AM PRINCESS X by CHERIE PRIEST

Best friends Libby and May create a fun character called Princess X and collaborate on a comic featuring this heroine.Then Libby dies in car accident and May loses both Princess X and her best friend.

Three years pass and all of a sudden May starts noticing Princess X paraphernalia everywhere: stickers, graffiti, a whole web comic carrying on the story of this character. As May looks closer into this phenomenon she finds clues that suggest only Libby could be the one behind this, not to mention further clues within the comic that seem to be trying to tell her that Libby never died; she was kidnapped.

While it seems crazy and dangerous and also too good to be true, May cannot let go of the idea that her friend is actually alive and the only way she can tell May is with Princess X. With the help of her neighbor, who is amateur hacker, May follows the clues to dark corners all in the hope that at the end of this maze she’ll find her best friend.

While the characters feel a little flat, the twists in this plot-driven YA novel make up for it. PRINCESS X is a fun, exciting read: a thriller wrapped up in a sweet friendship story.


*** SPOILER ALERT ***

The novel kind of lost me once May actually finds Libby. At that point they decide to hunt down the man behind this, a known murderer, by themselves. Now I could get behind May’s logic for looking for Libby herself. Adults wouldn’t believe her. Everyone already thinks Libby dead and May comes across as a crazed grieving friend. However, once they have Libby it seems the strategy should be getting to safety and alerting authorities, not chasing after a dangerous man themselves. While there are explanations for risky actions, nothing felt convincing to me and the last part of the book felt contrived for extra thrill.

Friday, December 23, 2016

STONES FROM THE RIVER


Review of STONES FROM THE RIVER by URSULA HEGI

With this novel, Hegi crafts a sweeping tale about prejudice and belonging. On a wider scale, the book follows World War II from the perspective of the Germans, while on a smaller scale we live through the eyes of Trudi, a dwarf but more importantly an intelligent, tenacious woman driven to bitterness by the ostracization of her peers.

The first half the novel focuses on Trudi’s individual struggle fitting in as a dwarf starting from childhood. She starts collecting secrets about people as she learns that: 1. Secrets give you power. And 2. People like gossip. Then the storyline shifts as the Nazis come to power. All of Trudi’s grudges, which felt so justified earlier, start to feel petty in comparison to the horrors taking place around her.

While I enjoyed most of this novel, I did grow bored around the halfway point and set it down for perhaps three months before resuming. When I did resume, it felt like I had given up right before the story picked up its pace, so I suppose there’s kind of a “calm before the storm” feel to the plot as it transitions from Trudi’s personal grievances to the larger scale atrocities being committed by Nazis.

There’s a huge cast of characters in this novel, which I always enjoy. Far too many to list in a review. I particularly like Trudi’s father, a classic personality: the grounded, quiet, wise mentor. Leo truly sees his daughter for all her unique strengths, but he also recognizes how the world will see her and doesn’t try to shield her from the reality that many people won’t look past her differences.

I also love that this book continues past World War II, following aftermath in Germany. So many World War II novels cut off during the war, usually because they’re telling a more focused story about one or a few individuals who didn’t fare well during that time. However, this novel has a wide scope. It doesn’t feel so much like it’s about World War II but rather that’s one of the many things that happens in the story. The book begins well before and continues on after the war, remaining true to the themes of prejudice and belonging.