Saturday, August 22, 2015

Girl on a Wire by Gwenda Bond

genre: young adult

Jules Maroni is a wire walker - a pretty dang good one.  When her family of performers joins a new circus she's ready to show the world what she can do - but she doesn't anticipate meeting Remy. Remy the handsome trapeze artist, Remy who just happens to be a Garcia.  And Maronis don't become friends with Garcias - there is a history there that Jules doesn't understand and the consequences of the past are far-reaching.  Jules has to decide if she has the courage to be who she was meant to be and make her own rules in a tight-knit community where family is business.

I completely fell for this retelling of Romeo and Juliet.  The magical/fantasy element took me a bit by surprise and I had to stretch a little to just believe it but once I did, I really enjoyed myself.  Jules is a fleshed out teen - eager to prove herself and so breathlessly on the edge of a romance that she really wants.  The plot all plays out along the backdrop of the circus and its season - which I found fascinating.  I switched between audio and ebook on this one and the audio was quite good - the narrator had a good feel for the story.  The story got a little slow in places and a few of the secondary characters were a little flat but I still liked it a lot, especially the very end.  I love an ending that catches me by surprise in a good way.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Skullduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy (audiobook)

genre: middle grade horror

When Stephanie's horror-novelist uncle passes away, her life changes surprisingly drastically.  This is because in the wake of this tragedy she meets a talking skeleton.  Yes.  You read that correctly.  His name is Skulduggery Pleasant and he was once dead.  But now, instead of dead, he is a snarky and brilliant (and rules-bending) detective who is out to figure out what's behind Uncle Gordon's death. And he needs a side-kick, right?  Especially because unbeknownst to Stephanie, there is some ancient, evil magic at work and it's going to take the two of them to face it down.

I listened to this on a long road trip with my 12 year old son, my 10 year old son and my 60 something year old mother.  We ALL enjoyed it.  The writing is sharp and the plot moves quickly. The world building is unique but not too complicated.  The banter between Stephanie and Skulduggery is so fun and just Skulduggery himself had us laughing out loud.  The audio book is INCREDIBLY well done.  I put that in all caps because I think the narrator's voice was top notch - the variety of voices was amazing!  I would love to listen to something else that he's done.

One note for sensitive parents (like myself) - there are some swears in here, some *d* words and I think a few *h* words.   Whenever we heard them I just told my sons we don't say that word :)  And it is a dark story - there are some intense and mildly gory moments.  However, there is also a lot about doing hard things for the greater good and friendship and one quote actually made me TEARY in my car, when I thought about how hard it is to face great evil but that if no one is willing to be brave and do just that, evil will always win.  My sons would BEG for it every time we got in the car and I was happy to oblige and that, for me, means that this author did something right.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Moon Called by Patricia Briggs

genre: paranormal/urban fantasy

Mercy Thompson is car mechanic - a pretty dang good one.  She's also a friend to some werewolves.  And a vampire - her life is full of creatures that are more than human.  So when a new werewolf shows up at her garage, she feels like she can handle it except that he's not just any new werewolf and by helping him she unwittingly is neck-deep in a situation that is bigger than she could've imagined.  She's got to call on some old friends to help her figure out not just what's happening but who is behind it.

So, I'm glad I did NOT judge this book by its cover.  The first cover I saw looks like an absolute trashy romance novel and this book is actually not that at all. There is a thread of romance but mostly it's a paranormal mystery.  Mercy is tough and capable but also loyal and snarky.  The werewolves she works with are both dangerous and paradoxically kind and helpful.  I found myself engaged in the story and her world is one with some depth to it. The whole werewolf social hierarchies are interesting, and although I don't know if I care enough to read all the books, this one totally kept my attention.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley (audiobook)

genre: young adult urban fantasy

No one really knows what is making it hard for Aza Ray to breathe - but ever since she could remember, life has been doctors and hospitals, trying to figure it out.  Snarky and a bit of a loner, her best friend Jason is the one she confides in the she sees...something.  Something in the sky - something like a ship.  Jason, being the quirky guy he is, believes her.  And on the day that there is just no more air left for Aza, she's gone.  But not really GONE.  She's taken back to where she came from, a land of clouds and sky, just above our own water and land: Magonia.  And in Magonia, Aza is more capable than she ever could've imagined.

This book will take some serious suspending of disbelief.  Not just because we get very little backstory on the plot of the last 2/3 of the book, but because some things just don't sit as well as in your average fantasy.  However, if you are willing to do it, there is some crazy imaginative stuff here - bird creatures, singing powers and weather-making cloud whales.  I'm telling you, it's some really out-there stuff.   Aza is an intriguing and intelligent character and I particularly like her friend Jason, who is clearly on the autism spectrum - his issues are dealt with in a really respectful and believable way and I liked the switching between them as narrators.  The thread of romance was nice enough and I enjoyed it enough to want to keep listening, I just wasn't as thrilled as I'd hoped I'd be.

One note: I listened to the audio version, which for the most part I really liked.  However, Aza's voice is super gaspy.  I get that it's because it's hard for her to breathe but sometimes it was SUPER annoying.  But other times, it really seemed to fit the action in the story.  Jason's voice was very well done.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Rook by Sharon Cameron

genre: young adult dystopian, post-apcolypic

In a future Paris whose turbulent society looks remarkably like the turbulent society of its' past, the residents of the Upper City are being sent to the guillotine.  The loss is tremendous and hope would be dying if not for the intrepid Rook, who manages to smuggle as many as possible out of the prisons and off to freedom - leaving a red tipped feather in their place.

Meanwhile, across the channel in the Commonwealth, Sophie Bellamy is negotiating her own troubles, what with her family's estate on the verge of collapsing unless she can marry a man to save them.  The chosen fiancĂ©, however, leaves much to be desired and when the exploits of the Rook arrive on her doorstep, things get very complicated indeed.  In a world where technology is outlawed and Fate rules with an iron fist, the slaughter across the channel and the antics of her fiancĂ© will affect Sophie's choices in ways that even she couldn't imagine.

I can honestly say that this book pretty much knocked my socks off, in a good way.  As a decades-long devotee of The Scarlet Pimpernell,  from the first few pages, I was hooked.  There is something so glorious about the intrigue and the selflessness - and then you toss that plot up into the air with a post-apocolypic world, some fantastic romance, solid and interesting characters and great writing?  I wanted this book in my hands all the time until I finished. It just never felt dull to me - the bad guys are so bad and the good guys are so multi-dimensional with that Robin Hood vibe that the plot just roared along.  I just believed it and let myself be drawn in for the ride.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson

genre: travelogue

While Bill Bryson was raised in middle America, jolly old England is where he'd hung his hat for the past 20 years.  When a move back to the states was imminent, he decided to use public transportation to travel around that magical island and see all its wonders.  With a very self-depreciating style and an uncommonly violent hatred for ugly buildings, Bryson introduces us to the sites and backcountry life of England, Wales and Scotland.

This is the fourth Bryson I've tried and while it isn't my favorite, it isn't my least favorite either.  I already have a deep and abiding love for Britian and so I came to this book with a higher level of interested.  While parts had me actually cackling outloud, I'd say those parts are pretty few and far between.  I think one problem is that I'm not a very good armchair traveler, which isn't Bill Bryson's fault, but it does mean that I get bored easier than someone is content reading about doing something instead of doing it themselves.  There is some interesting stuff in here but it's mostly him complaining that things are dreary, his hotel is shoddy and he can't find a good pub to get a pint in.  I liked when he was teaching me about social history, especially in Northern England with its industrial past and his musings on the British Character were entertaining.  I do like his style of storytelling and his presence in the book is humorous, I just wasn't blown away.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Ring and the Crown by Melissa de la Cruz

genre: ya fantasy

Two friends, raised in the palace.  Two girls, one preparing to be a queen, the other learning the depths of a magic that can not only create illusions and cure the sick but can in a single stroke tear a kingdom apart.  Marie, a princess, has always been sickly, always felt tied up by the bonds of her future as leader of the empire. Aelwyn's knowledge of magic makes her yearn for the power to lead.  With a recent war fresh in their minds and upcoming arranged engagement for Marie, the upcoming London Season looks promising indeed.  Between foreign princes, invited courtiers and American heiresses looking for a match, the Franco-British empire is on the cusp of a grand changing of the guard.

I liked this fast-moving fantasy soap opera.  There is a lot of different minor plots and we are switching between various characters as they circle around the palace and the impending marriage between Marie and the Prussian prince.  There is all kinds of lovemaking and wooing and unwanted affection - and I appreciated that our author didn't try to tie everything up with a nice bow in the end.  One thing I didn't like was a particular scene that was full of revelations - they felt shoved at me and what was revealed was never fleshed out so that we saw the results in the plot.  Even the revelations themselves felt a little off to me and it took the shine off the novel as a whole.  I appreciated this fantasty-future, with its magical ties to Camelot and re-constructed history of Europe, I just wasn't completely thrilled by the end.  Not sorry I read it, just not blown away.

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Chocolate Kiss by Laura Florand

genre: romance/chick lit

Magalie Chaudron is rather content with her life.  She has her own little Parisian apartment above the chocolate shop where she works with her aunts. La Maison des Sorcieres serves baked delicacies as well as a cup of hot chocolate that can be life changing, depending on how Magalie chooses to make it for you.  Magalie has convinced herself that it's enough for her, the shop and its' chocolate. So when the shop is threatened by the opening of a brand new patisserie by the celebrated pastry chef Phillipe Lyonais, Magalie is ready to defend her territory with whatever weapons she can think of.

You can guess how it ends, because this book is definitely a romance novel (yes, there are very racey scenes to skip over if it's not your thing).  Romance novels typically bore me within the first two chapters but this one is just cute. I have a soft spot for romantic stories that involve food and baking, especially chocolate (why is that?) so I was probably more patient with the steaminess than I would ordinarily be.  Magalie has an interesting backstory and I felt like even though she drove me crazy with the "yes no yes no" of most romantic heroines, she did have some legitimate issues to get over and that kept me interested. Phillipe is, of course, a dreamboat in all the ways and who doesn't fall in love with the guy that can make you amazing desserts?  Seriously?  Even though the writing felt a little hackneyed sometimes, this was a fast and fluffy read that did have me googling macaron recipes and longing to see Paris by the end.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Classic Starts: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

genre: children's mystery

A few weeks ago my 10 year old son asked me to read him a Classic Starts book we had around the house called The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - a chapter book of stories told for younger children. Each chapter is its own mystery.  There is murder in them, although not graphic, and some of the stories are a little complicated.  However, my son loved it and always begged for more.  You do get some sense of Sherlock's personality and they are told from Watson's point of view, as in the original.  They picked mostly interesting ones - involving lots of animals and jewels and hidden tunnels.  The final story ended in a way that made no sense to me or my older son (age 12), who has already read the book and liked it but was confused about the resolution to the mystery. At any rate, it's a good introduction and I think it's done well enough that if I found something else similar about Sherlock, my son would want more.  He'd give it 4 stars, I'd probably give it 2.5 or 3 so we'll just round to a 3 :)

Sunday, July 26, 2015

A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

genre: mystery

When Dr. John Watson goes to meet a prospective new roommate, he has no idea that the quirky man he meets in a hospital lab will change his life.  But that's because he doesn't know Sherlock Holmes yet.  Sherlock who is brilliant and crazy observant, capable and Oh So Sure of Himself.   Sherlock who can make a string of deductions that would make your head swim.  It isn't long that the new inhabitants of 221B Baker Street are thick in a case involving a murdered man with no wounds, a wedding ring, and some letters written on a wall in blood.  As Dr. Watson watches Sherlock use his mad skills, he comes to realize he has become the companion of London's Finest Detective.

Since I have already watched all three seasons of the BBC series Sherlock, I had a vague sense of the mystery and its resolution, so I didn't really read this book for the PLOT, necessarily.  I read it more to have a sense of the canon and to get to know Sherlock Holmes as he was actually envisioned by Conan Doyle.  Truth: I like Benedict Cumberbatch better ;)  However, I can absolutely see why people who love mysteries are drawn to him - it's a fascinating bent on the genre, the idea of someone using minute details to form grander hypotheses instead of just using clues.   I did NOT like the giant backstory in the middle all about how newly settled Mormons were kidnapping people and holding them hostage in Salt Lake City and murdering non-believers, etc.    If it hadn't been about my own ancestors, I wouldn't appreciated the way it fleshed out the motives of the killer, instead it just annoyed me.  The writing itself is just good.  I had to find a pen to underline the dialogue and thoughts that stood out to me - thoughts both intellectually interesting as well as the the little snippets that teach us about Sherlock as a person.

I am glad I've got one Sherlock Holmes under my belt.  I don't usually go for murder mystery stories (unless they have Benedict Cumberbatch in them) but I feel like I'm in the mood, I'd go for another :)

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