Monday, September 1, 2014

Brief Reviews Summer 2014 part 1

The Violinist's Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic CodeNonfiction is not my favorite genre, but I really enjoyed this book about genetics.  The information is conveyed through a series of interesting anecdotes that I found myself bringing up in conversation often because they were too good not to share.  The scientific explanations that accompany the stories are all told in accessible language that left me with a much better understanding of DNA than my university biology class did.  I'd recommend it to anyone looking for an entertaining and informative popular science book. From John Fitzgerald Kennedy to Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec and from Einstein's brain to Polar Bear livers, this book has it all! The Violinist's Thumb by Sam Kean: buy it or check it out today!

We Were Liars I avoided reading anything about this book before I read it because I had so much faith in the author that I knew I'd like it.  I assumed from the cover and the author's previous books that it would a light-hearted, witty summer romp.  Perhaps I should have researched it more because boy howdy was I wrong!  I had an emotional ending to the school year for various reasons, so I was glad to read something light.  Then I was completely blindsided by the traumatic ending.  The tone (and genre) turned on a dime.  If you had asked me if I liked the novel at any point before the big twist I would have said I was loving it and I did read it in one sitting.  But I disliked the ending so much that it cast a pall on the whole novel.  We Were Liars by E. Lockhart: buy it or check it out today!

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop TalkingAs an introvert, I loved this book for naming and normalizing so many things that I do and feel.  It contained a lot of great advice on how to live a happy and healthy life as an introvert.  All of the descriptions of the horrible experiences a lot of introvert children go through made me call my mother to thank her for being awesome.  Even if you're not an introvert, this is a great book to read because chances are you'll have to teach, manage, raise, date, or befriend an introvert at some point in your life and this will help you understand why they act the way they do.  The pace was a bit slow at times, but the information contained in it is excellent.  Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain: buy it or check it out today!      

Longbourn This novel is set during the events of Pride and Prejudice, but focuses on the world of the servants and what is happening to them as the Bennet girls are buffeted by the winds of love upstairs.  My feelings about the novel are torn.  On the one hand this is a well-researched look into the life of Regency era servants and I enjoyed reading about all the gritty details.  The servants themselves are faceted characters and I cared about their stories.  On the other hand I don't like the way the original characters are portrayed and in some instances changed completely by adding twists to their back stories.  The tone of the novel is very modern with its focus on the social injustices of the era.  There's even an extended tangent on the horrors of war.  It has none of the sparkling wit of Austen and doesn't even attempt to imitate her style.  Which makes me question why this story was even set in Pride and Prejudice.  I would have enjoyed it much better if it was the story of Regency servants of a household invented for the novel.  As is I found myself longing for an Austen sensibility that just wasn't there.  Still, if you can put the original aside when reading it and take it on its own merits it's an interesting and compelling piece of historical fiction. Longbourn by Jo Baker: buy it or check it out today!

The Whistling SeasonThis was a great summer read for a teacher.  I borrowed it from my aunt & uncle and read it while relaxing in a lounge chair on their back porch.  The narrator is looking back on his childhood as a homesteader in Montana attending a one-room school.  The book is full of the evocative nostalgia you'd expect from someone recounting beloved stories from their childhood.  The characters are all well drawn and the period details are fascinating.  The story is at turns moving and humorous but always well-written.  The narrator was an intellectually curious child so it's full of random tid-bits that he discovers.  I wasn't a big fan of the ending, but the lessons learned in this one-room school house will stay with me for a long time.   The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig: buy it or check it out today!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Brief Reviews Spring 2014 part 2

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (Persepolis, #1-2)I enjoyed reading this graphic memoir for the perspective that it provided.  I read volume one and two for my book club and while I'm usually not a fan of memoirs, I appreciated the glimpse this one gave me into a culture and events that I knew very little about. There were many poignant and humorous moments in this coming of age story full of acts of defiance and attempts to understand the world that anyone can relate to.  There's a reason this book has received so much acclaim and it largely lives up to the hype.  Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi: buy it or check it out today!

Prince Puggly of Spud and the Kingdom of Spiff The kingdoms of Spiff and Spud couldn't be more different.  One values fashion above all else while the other prides itself in its more humble and mismatched tastes.  But not everyone in Spiff rejoices in uncomfortable fashions.  The princess would much rather read in her pajamas than go to some stuffy ball.  When Prince Puggly of Spud and the Princess of Spiff meet up they hatch a plan to teach the Spiffians a lesson in blindly following trends.  This book is pure, entertaining froth.  The light and humorous rhymes pair up with the creative typography and the fanciful situations and characters (such as King Dandy von Fop) to create an amusing tale that would be fun to read aloud. The theme of individuality as expressed by fashion is well-worn, but the way the story is told with its jaunty rhymes and playful layout is perfectly charming. Prince Puggly of Spud and the Kingdom of Spiff by Robert Paul Weston: buy it or check it out today!

Domovoi TPBThis comic starts off with a full page spread of a sassy talking cat, so it was basically love at first sight.  But after the initial excitement of attraction wore off, I found that we didn't have much in common.  Most of the characters are never fully introduced and many situations are left unexplained. The narrative was disjointed and confusing moving from one scene to the next seemingly based more on what would be pretty to draw than what would add to character or story development.  The artwork is absolutely gorgeous and just flipping through for the pictures alone is worth it.  As a story I just didn't connect with it though.  Another disappointing pretty face.  Domovoi by Peter Bergting: buy it or check it out today!

The Queen of Attolia (The Queen's Thief, #2)  This book is difficult for me to review because I can't go too far into why I dislike it without revealing major spoilers.  I absolutely adored the first book and perhaps it's because I grew so attached to the protagonist that I was so upset by the ending of this book.  Let's just say that I am apparently not as quick to forgive as he is.  I was so upset by the ending that it was all I could talk about for days to anyone who would listen.  Even before the final twist I didn't like this book as much as the first.  There was a lot of planning out war and tedious descriptions of battles and whether or not stores will last which is fascinating to some but not my cup of tea.  I much preferred the heist theme of the first.  The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner: buy it or check it out today!

Fool's Errand (Tawny Man, #1)Golden Fool (Tawny Man, #2)Fool's Fate (Tawny Man, #3)

Now this is a fantasy series that did not disappoint!  It's the third trilogy set in this world and I was glad to get an update on Fitz and the Fool.  Each book is over 600 pages, but I wanted them to be even longer.  I care deeply about these characters and there wasn't a single false step to jolt me out of the story.  I read them all in less than a week--one when I was working.  I normally sit with colleagues at lunch but that week I couldn't help finding a corner to myself where I could read on my break.  I even read on the bus despite it making me nauseated--it was worth it!  Even when I wasn't reading the books the moment my mind was free to wander it would travel to the world of the series and play out different scenarios and try to predict what would happen next.  The world building, the complex characterization, the moral and philosophical questions, and the action scenes are all superb.  I couldn't ask for better. If you haven't read the series start with Assassin's Apprentice and thank me later.  The Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb: buy it or check it out today!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Thief Review

The Thief (The Queen's Thief, #1)

Book talk: Gen is chained up in a dungeon, with shackles chaffing against his wrists as he slowly starves.  But he isn't concerned.  Gen is an experienced thief, which is what got him into prison and what will get him out.  There isn't a prison that he can't steal himself out of and he knows he'll be free of this one soon...somehow.  He isn't surprised when the King's Magus brings him out for a consultation.  He has a job that only a thief can do.  It will be dangerous and difficult and he may not make it out alive, but the Magus assures him that he will definitely die if he doesn't go along with it.  So Gen agrees to go with the Magus and steal an ancient treasure from the Gods.

Rocks my socks:  I am a sucker for any story involving sly thieves with hearts of gold--the sassier the better!  Gen does not disappoint on this count.  He takes pleasure in annoying the rest of the party throughout the novel, but when the going gets tough is quick to display his skill and cunning.  The world-building and invented mythology is interesting and their adventures on the road keep the pace moving admirably.  The characters are believably portrayed with flaws and layers and grow over the course of the novel.

Rocks in my socks:  There's a lot of energy put into creating a twist at the end that was ultimately fairly predictable.

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to fans of fantasy and stories about thieves.  5th grade and up.


Megan Whalen Turner has a website:

There's a jaunty trailer for the book:

Source: school library

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner: buy it or check it out today!

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Vine Basket review

The Vine Basket

Book talk:  What would you do if you were not allowed to go to school? Ever since her older brother left, Mehrigul has to accompany father to market and watch the stall while he goes away to gamble and chat with friends.  At home she often has to take control of the household chores while her mother is laid out with headaches.  She misses school, and she misses her brother even more, but at least if she works hard perhaps she can keep her younger sister in school and make a good life for herself.  Mehrigul never thought that she had anything special to offer the world anyway, until an American lady sees a vine basket she made and buys it.  She promises to return in a month and buy any more baskets Merigul can make.  Her father doesn't approve, so she has to hide her basket weaving in between chores.  Then things go from bad to worse when the local authorities realize that she's no longer in school and threaten to send her away to work in a factory.

Rocks my socks:  I had never even heard of the Uyghur people before reading this book, so I was excited to learn about a new culture.  The details of how they have adapted to life in their harsh climate were fascinating, but the reason I love this book so much is Mehrigul.  She is a completely endearing character and is so fully fleshed out that she felt very real to me.  All of her insecurities and guilt over small transgressions are laid bare.  She works so hard to achieve her goals that it is heartbreaking when she encounters set backs.  I enjoyed the descriptions of what it felt like to make the baskets with her own hands from the frustration when something wasn't working out to the pride she felt over the finished product.

Rocks in my socks:   I can be leery of books about an ethnic group written by someone from outside that group, but La Valley really seems to have done her research and was careful to consult Uyghur people as she worked on the novel.  Mostly I am just glad that this story that may have otherwise never been told was written.  The fact that it's an American lady who has to come in and save someone from another culture is a bit troubling, but given the circumstances seems realistic and at least the American only plays a periphery role, helping Mehrigul to make her own life better.

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to anyone looking for a contemporary novel set in another culture or those looking for a heartwarming story of a girl overcoming difficult odds.  The conditions Mehrigul live in are harsh but there's no graphic violence and no romance.  I'd say it's fine for 5th grade and up.


Josanne La Valley has a website with more information about herself, the book, and the Uyghur people:

Readers might enjoy this video of Uyghur artisans at work:

Source: school library

The Vine Basket by Josanne La Valley: buy it or check it out today!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Gum Girl Review

The Gumazing Gum Girl! Book 1 Chews Your Destiny

Book talk:  Have you ever had gum stuck in your hair? How did you get it out?  Gabby's mother uses peanut butter to do the trick, but she warns Gabby to stop her constant chewing.  But Gabby just can't resist and after all, how would her mother ever find out?  Then she blows a giant bubble that touches the telephone wires and electrocutes her.  This turns her into the gumazing gum girl!  At first Gabby just wants to get out of the sticky situation, but she soon realizes that being the gum girl has its advantages.  Will Gabby save the day--or will she just get busted?

Rocks my socks:  This quick read is packed full of laughs and classic super hero tropes.  There are ample illustrations in black, white, and bubblegum-pink that show off gum girl's special powers and crime-fighting action scenes.  The occasional Spanish word is used and introduced in ways that are easy to understand.  There aren't many early chapter books starring Latina characters, so I was excited to find this one.

Rocks in my socks:  
The plot and characters are a bit cliche, but it makes the story easy to follow which makes sense for an early chapter book.  Especially considering that this is at the easier end of the early chapter spectrum with many pages only containing a few words in dialogue bubbles.

Every book its reader:  
This is an excellent early chapter books for fans of superheroes and humor.  A fast, engaging read for those just diving into chapter books.


Rhode Montijo has a blog where you can find early sketches for the book:

Source: school library

The Gumazing Gum Girl by Rhode Montijo: buy it or check it out today!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

To All the Boys I've Loved Before Review

To All the Boys I've Loved Before (To All the Boys I've Loved Before, #1)

Book talk:  What would you do if everyone you've ever had a crush on got a letter from you pouring out everything you felt for them at the time?  That is exactly what happens to Lara Jean.  Every time she had a crush on a boy and she wanted to get over it she would sit down and write a letter.  She'd pour her heart into it because no one else would ever see it.  Or so she thought.  Then one day her special hat box that held her letters is taken to the Goodwill by her father on an overzealous housecleaning spree.  Someone puts them in the mailbox, and suddenly a guy she had a crush on years ago comes up to her in PE asking her about a strange letter he just received.  It gets worse.  One of the guys she had a crush on is now her older sister's boyfriend.

Rocks my socks:  The first time I heard the plot of the book described I had a visceral reaction to it.  I'm sure there are more mortifying situations than having to come face to face with every boy you've had a crush on, but I am hard-pressed to think of one.  The romance this creates is certainly unconventional and I enjoyed reading about it.  What kept me feverishly turning the pages until I finished it though was not the romantic relationships, but the ones between the sisters.  After all love triangles (or in this case, polygons) are a dime a dozen in YA fiction, but it's rare to find such well-developed relationships between sisters.  The tensions between them really drove the plot as much as the romantic tension did, which was refreshing.  I also connected with Lara Jean in a lot of ways, for example her quite sensible fear of driving (which I have overcome by moving to the Bay Area and no longer owning a car, pro tip!)  I can't wait for the next book!

Rocks in my socks:  nothing

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to anyone looking for a realistic school story with a touch of romance.  Those looking for stories about sisters or stories with Asian-American leads will also be glad to find this novel.  The romance never gets too heated.  I'd say it's fine for 6th grade and up.


Jenny Han has her own author page with more info on her books and FAQs:

Source: Book Passage (I attended an event for the author and got her to sign my copy!)

To All the Boys I've Loved Before by Jenny Han

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

How to Catch a Bogle Review

How to Catch a Bogle (Bogle #1)

Book talk:  Bogles are good at hiding.  You might never see one.  The only hint of where one is might be that children keep disappearing.  There are those as don't believe in bogles, but Birdie knows better.  She's been a bogler's apprentice for quite some time and she's helped her master to catch many monsters.  But how could a young girl help a man catch a bogle?  Well, bogles love children, so they make excellent bait.  All Birdie has to do is stand in a circle of salt and sing.  What could be simpler than that?  It's a lot better than many of the other jobs orphans take.  Except of course that a moment's hesitation or a stumble could very easily mean that her apprenticeship will be terminated in the jaws of bogle.

Rocks my socks:  How could I resist a story about a Victorian orphan girl fighting monsters?  Birdie is wonderfully strong-willed and independent as she fights to be recognized for the hero she is despite people constantly underestimating her.  The other characters are fun to read about as well from the artful dodger-like Ned to the indomitable Miss Eames.  The bogle-catching interludes provide plenty of suspense while the overarching story provides a mystery to be solved.  The gruesome ballads that Birdie sings to attract the bogles are deliciously macabre and Jinks, as usual, finds ways to slip humor in throughout the story.

Rocks in my socks:  I enjoyed the story and all the period details immensely, but the characters didn't come alive for me on a visceral level.  They felt more like archetypes than fully fleshed out humans.

Every book its reader:  
I'd give this to fans of supernatural stories and historical fiction set in Victorian London.  For a story about child-eating monsters it isn't particularly gory and there's little romance.  I'd say it's fine for fourth graders and up looking for a scary story.


Catherine Jinks has a website with more information about herself and her books:

The publisher has a book for the series complete with lyrics to one of Birdie's bogle-catching songs:

I love the trailer for this book:

Source: school library

How to Catch a Bogle by Catherine Jinks: buy it or check it out today!