June Minireviews – Part 1

Sometimes I don’t feel like writing a full review for whatever reason, either because life is busy and I don’t have time, or because a book didn’t stir me enough.  Sometimes, it’s because a book was so good that I just don’t have anything to say beyond that I loved it!  For whatever reason, these are books that only have a few paragraphs of thoughts from me…

The Wrath & the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

//published 2015//

I’ve seen this book pop up here and there on various lists and reviews.  A retelling of One Thousand and One Nights (ish), it’s set in a desert country where magic isn’t an impossibility, even if it isn’t terribly common.

I really wanted to like this book, but I honestly just found it rather boring.  The first half of the book is soooo slow.  Basically nothing happens except listening to Shahrzad have a lot of feelings.  She purposely becomes Khalid’s bride so she can get revenge on him because she hates him so much, but it takes her roughly .03 seconds to fall in love with him, and then we have PAGES of her agonizing about her feelings and wondering how she can have sympathy for this horrific monster.  I’m not a huge fan of instalove, but I can understand its sometimes necessity to make a story (kind of) work, but in this case it verged on the absurd.  I will say that what I did like was that eventually Shahrzad and Khalid have a REAL CONVERSATION where they both explain their back stories and are honest with each other, which I really, really appreciated because I HATE it when characters lie to this person they supposedly love more than life itself.  But that conversation happens way further down the line than it should have.

Initially I was still planning to read the second book just to see how everything comes out, but life interfered and it was a few days before I had an opportunity to pick it up.  That’s when I realized that I actually just didn’t care enough to plow through another 400 pages.  The Wrath & the Dawn wasn’t a bad book, and I think that if I had gone straight into the second book I would have probably enjoyed that at about that same middling level, but in the end I just wasn’t that intrigued.  There were things I liked about this book, but the overall incredibly slow pace combined with characters who pretty much do nothing but have a lot of feelings (we hear about Shahrzad’s the most, but they ALL have LOTS of feelings) meant that this was really only a 3/5 read for me.

The Man With Two Left Feet & Other Stories by P.G. Wodehouse

//published 1917//

Fun little collection of Wodehouse tales – and incidentally the first time that the Bertie/Jeeves duo makes an appearance.  While these were entertaining stories, it was interesting because they lack the guaranteed lightheartedness of his later works.  While they definitely aren’t downers by any definition, there are little things that made me realize just how careful Wodehouse was to keep his best works completely frothy and untouched by any sad realities!  While this may not be the best place to start if you are new to Wodehouse, they’re definitely worth visiting at some point.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

//published 1977//

It’s kind of weird, because I put books on my TBR and then forget about them for years, then my random number generator chooses my next book… and then it turns out that it’s becoming a movie??  This is the second time this has happened to me this year!  I had had Ready Player One on my TBR forever, and then after I read it I found out it was becoming a movie in less than a month.  (Side note: Still haven’t done a compare/contrast on book v. movie for that one even though I have been wanting to ever since I saw the movie!!)  The same thing happened here – I got this book out from the library (it’s been on the TBR since 2015), and then realized that I had seen a trailer for the upcoming movie.  So weird.

ANYWAY this book was a solid sci-fi read that I did mostly enjoy, but with kind of mixed feelings.  I think what it really came down to was that it was a sad book.  Everyone is so mean to Ender (“for the good of humanity”) and I never enjoy reading books where a character is just being consistently bullied and hurt.  There were also some random scenes of violence that seemed abrupt and disturbing to me.

I couldn’t quite get my head around the ages of these kids.  I realize that’s supposed to be part of the controversy, but seriously?  Six years old?  I just couldn’t buy it.  I think this story would have made a lot more sense if Ender had been more like ten when the story started.  I just can’t imagine even a mind-blowing genius six-year-old having the emotional capacity to make the decisions Ender was making.

All in all, this was a thoughtful book, with a lot to really chew on, but the tone was a bit too heavy/downer for my personal tastes, so even though I gave this book 4*, I decided not to continue with the series.

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

//published 1998//

This was a childhood favorite that is still a delight.  If you’re looking for just a fun, fluffy little fairytale retelling, this one is a great afternoon read.  It’s a children’s book so it goes quickly, but despite its short(ish) length, there is still enough world-building to give the reader a solid glimpse into Ella’s life and home.  I hadn’t read this one in several years, and I was happy to see how well it has held up.

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Ready Player One // by Ernest Cline

//published 2011//

Wade Watts is your typical high schooler.  He goes to school every day and attends classes, eats lunch, takes notes, and tries to avoid the bullies.  Except the year is 2044, and the school Wade attends is part of an online virtual reality called OASIS.

Basically everyone has an OASIS account and spends as much time there as possible, since the real world (of course) sucks.  I actually almost didn’t continue reading this book after having to sit through multiple pages of Wade explaining how God is a myth, people driving cars destroyed the entire earth, and Republicans ruined the economy.  Polemic much?  But I’m glad I stuck it out, because after we got done listening to Wade griping about how if only stupid conservatives had agreed to let the government force everyone to drive electric cars the world would be perfect, an actual story emerged and I was totally hooked.

The creator of OASIS, James Halliday, died five years before the story begins, and left behind his company and a ridiculous amount of money.  But instead of naming a specific person or entity to be his heir, he left behind a quest and a clue – and the person(s) to solve the quest would inherit everything.  Of course, this has led to all sorts of shenanigans and, among other things, created an entire huge group of people who do basically nothing except try to solve the first clue.  Wade is one of these people (“gunters”), albeit one who doesn’t feel like he has much chance of success.  He’s poor, which means he’s stuck on only a couple of the very basic planets in the OASIS with no opportunities to really get out and explore/hunt for the clue.

Halliday grew up in the 1980’s, and was obsessed with the stuff of his youth.  Many of his creations in OASIS reflect this, and most gunters believe that it’s super important to have a thorough working knowledge of all things 80’s culture.  This actually gave a really fun dimension to this book, with the futuristic virtual reality balanced with the retro 80’s tidbits.

Of course, it’s no real surprise when Wade has a bit break through in the quest, and things get crazy from there.  Although the quest is taking place in a virtual universe, there is a lot of real-life money on the line, and Wade soon finds himself a target to a big company that wants to win the quest so they can take over Halliday’s company, money, and OASIS.

One thing that was cracking me up when I was reading this was that Halliday grew up in Ohio, and eventually headquartered his company in our state capital, Columbus.  Hearing Columbus described as a “mecca of technology” totally made my day.

There were some things about this book that kept it from being perfect (beyond the preaching in the first chapter).  The pace definitely slowed in the middle, when a lot of the quest action was taking place separate from Wade (who is the narrator as well as the protagonist, so the story always stays with him) and Wade is busy dealing with romantic feelings (booooorrriinnnnggg).  The ending felt a little too simple/abrupt – an epilogue would have been really nice, to hear how some of the details got wrapped up.  Weirdly, I felt like the message wasn’t clear in this book.  I kind of assumed the Cline would be pointing out the importance of embracing real life, etc. – but that didn’t really come through.  In some ways, he seemed to act like a virtual future is the only bright one we have.

But all in all, this book was just a fun ride.  I was completely glued to the pages, and could hardly read fast enough in some places.  I really liked Wade a lot.  It seemed like although there tons of references to video games/movies/music/1980’s, it didn’t interfere with the plot, and didn’t deter me from enjoying the book even when it was something I had never heard of.  I felt like Wade did a good job describing what I needed to know in order to understand the next part of the story, but without slowing down the plot.  It was just a fun rollick of a read, and I intend both to add this one to my permanent collection, and to check out more of Cline’s work.  4/5 and recommended.

PS I originally read about this book many moons ago when Sophie reviewed it.  Check out her review here!

November Minireviews

So I find that I not-infrequently read books that I just feel rather “meh” about and they don’t seem worth writing an entire post about.  However, since I also use this blog as a sort of book-review diary, I like to at least say something.  So I’ve started a monthly post with minireviews of all those books that just didn’t get more than a few paragraphs of feelings from me.

The Voyage to Magical North and The Journey to Dragon Island by Claire Fayers

//published 2016//

I have to say that I actually really, really enjoyed these books, so the whole “meh” feeling doesn’t really apply here.  I gave them an easy 4/5 and completely enjoyed joining Brine on her unexpected pirate ship adventure.  Fayers did a great job with world-building – as an adult, I still found interesting and engaging, but I think that the target audience (middle school) would still easily be able to follow the simple yet involved rules of Brine’s world.

//published 2017//

Brine herself is a very fun heroine, and I felt like her character was balanced out well by Peter, and later Tom.  All in all, I enjoyed how the characters didn’t really fall into stereotypes, but also didn’t feel like they were trying to not fall into stereotypes.

I would definitely recommend these fun and magical little books, and will be looking out for further adventures of Brine & co. in the future.

Cinchfoot by Thomas Hinkle

//published 1938//

Another Famous Horse Story, I found this one to be a bit boring.  Cinchfoot just sort of meanders about but there isn’t a really strong plot or story that feels like it is pulling things along.  Not a bad read, but not one I see myself returning to again.  3/5.

Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars by Daniel Pinkwater

//published 1979//

While this wasn’t my favorite Pinkwater book ever, it still had some very funny moments.  I also think that Pinkwater’s thoughts/views on the educational system are brilliantly insightful and cutting.  I also loved the way that Lionel realized that if he wasn’t learning things, it was his own fault at some level.  Some of the adventures the boys have are quite ridiculous, but the ridiculous is exactly what Pinkwater writes so well.  3.5/5 and I do recommend it, but only if you’ve read some of Pinkwater’s stronger works first.

The Reluctant Widow by Georgette Heyer

//published 1946//

This was a pretty adorable little Heyer tale.  I did find Carlyon a bit too overbearing at times, but Elinor was just too adorable, as was Carlyon’s younger brother.  I quite enjoyed the way that the love story was secondary to all the ridiculous spy tales.  Fun and frothy; classic Heyer.  4/5.

The Beauty and the Beast by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve

//published 2017//

So I purchased this edition because of the amazing illustrations by MinaLima.  My husband gave me some money for my birthday that he said was specifically for books, and, more specifically, I must purchase at least one book that I’ve been not purchasing because of its unreasonable expense!  This one fit the bill – but it was worth every penny, as the book itself is absolutely gorgeous. The illustrations are amazing – not just the big, fancy, interactive ones, but all the details on every page.

It was also interesting to read the original version of B&B – it’s a great deal more convoluted and involved than the traditional version we see these days, as Beauty has eleven (!!!) siblings, and there are multiple chapters devoted to a complicated backstory with fairy feuds.  It was still a very engaging story, although I can see why it has evolved the way that it has, getting rid of some of the extraneous characters and building more personality among those that are left.

Anyway, this was definitely a worthwhile purchase and read, and I can see myself returning to this gorgeous book many times in the future.

The Backyard Homestead Seasonal Planner by Ann Larkin Hansen

//published 2017//

This is another Storey book, and another addition to their Backyard Homestead series.  While this book did have some interesting information, and I did like the format where things were laid out by season, it was definitely an outline type of a book.  There wasn’t really a lot of depth about anything, making this more of a starting-point reference rather than an end-all tome.  It makes a nice addition to my collection, but definitely wouldn’t be the book I would choose if I could only have one homesteading manual.  Still, excellent formatting and very nicely put together, as I’ve come to expect from Storey.

The Little Nugget by P.G. Wodehouse

//published 1913//

This was a fun little tale of a very obnoxious little boy who is worth a great deal of money, and so has multiple people attempting to kidnap him for various reasons.  While there were several funny moments and it was overall an enjoyable tale, it wasn’t as developed as most of Wodehouse’s later works, and lacked that sort of bubbly perfection.  It was an easy 3/5 read and one that I do recommend, but not if it is your first foray into the world of Wodehouse.

Nimona // by Noelle Stevenson

//published 2015//

I picked up this graphic novel to just sort of flip through it and see what the pictures were like, and before I knew it I was about a third of the way through and completely engrossed in the story.  Nimona was a surprisingly enjoyable read for me.  To date, I haven’t been much into graphic novels, but I’m starting to think that that’s just because I haven’t found any good ones before this.

Originally a webcomic, Nimona is about a villain, Ballister Blackheart, who, in the first chapter, is joined by a new sidekick: Nimona.  Ballister isn’t too excited about having a tagalong at first, but it turns out that Nimona is a shapeshifter, and soon the pair is working together to wreck havoc.

What I LOVED about this story was the fabulous world-building.  The setting for this story is sort of medieval, with knights and villages and dragnos and stuff, except with modern technology (and beyond), like video calls and tiny walkie-talkies.  So it’s actually kind of a sci-fi story, except with knights.  I was completely in love with the setting and was delighted with how well everything blended together even though it felt like it should have been ridiculous – like a science fair that actually looks like a medieval fair, or jousting knights who also have illegal laser guns.

The characters were also fantastic.  I fell in love with Ballister basically immediately.  He’s the perfect villain-who-isn’t, and his relationship with Nimona is a delight.  I totally wanted Ballister to be my uncle.  Nimona herself has a lot more layers than it appears at first, and honestly my biggest beef about this whole story is just that I want MORE NIMONA (and more everything if I’m honest… I need like three sequels at least).  Ambrosius Goldenloin is the other main character – the official hero/arch-nemesis of Ballister.  Of course, they were erstwhile friends, wrenched apart by a terrible tragedy, and now fight against each other.  I actually really felt like their relationship was done well, too – their being more than friends felt like a natural part of the story, not THE story.

Of course, the artwork is also amazing.  It’s colorful and engaging, and I really loved Stevenson’s style.  There are so many expressions, not just from the people, but from the various animals Nimona shifts into as well.  I feel like I could easily reread this story and get so much more out of the pictures now that I already know where the story is heading.

Overall, this story was an easy 4/5.  I felt like some aspects of the plot could have been tightened up, and I really wanted a more concrete ending for Nimona herself, but I couldn’t believe how this story completely sucked me in.  I enjoyed every page and wanted about five times more.

It also made me interested to read some more graphic novels, so if anyone has some good suggestions, do let me know!  Nimona came to my attention via an excellent review by ChrissiReads last year.

The House of the Scorpion // The Lord of Opium // by Nancy Farmer

This duology left me with very mixed feelings.  So much of the conceptualization was really intriguing, yet somehow the story didn’t grab me the way I wanted it to.  While I wanted to see how things came together, in the end some of the solutions were just smidge too simplistic for my taste.  These are considered children’s books, but I would definitely put them in the YA category, despite the fact that the main character is only 14.

thehouseofthescorpion

//published 2002//

It’s really hard to talk about these books without divulging too much about what happens.  But basically the story starts with Matteo, a little boy who is actually a clone.  He was made from an old man known as El Patrón, who rules a country whose entire purpose is to grow opium.  Matt is being raised by Celia, who loves him, but within the first few chapters Matt ends up at the main house where he discovers that he is not a regular little boy as he supposed, but a clone – and almost everyone considers him a monster, subhuman.

These books delve a great deal into what makes us human, and when we become human.  While much of the discussion is about clones, and another “subhuman” group, the eejits, they are questions that can easily apply to many marginalized groups in today’s society – I found myself regularly marveling at how the statements concerning clones made by the majority of Opium’s population echoed the justifications put forth by pro-abortion advocates today – things like “they can’t really feel pain” or “I decided to create it so I can decide to terminate it” or “it doesn’t really understand what’s happening, so it doesn’t matter whether or not it’s treated well.”

In the first book, Farmer purposely keeps the reader in the dark about a lot of things – sometimes a bit too much, I felt.  However, if you flip open the cover of the second book, you’ll find the answers to many questions in the first few pages – maps and a chronology of events.  These were very helpful by the time I was about halfway through the first book.

All in all, I enjoyed the story in The House of the Scorpion.  It was intense and gritty, yet did so in a way that was completely appropriate for younger (I would say 11+) readers.  Basically, if a reader is old enough to understand the content, there isn’t anything they shouldn’t read.  Some of it is disturbing, but never grotesquely so.  Matt is a well-drawn and engaging character.  Despite the fact that the first few chapters cover the first 13 years of Matt’s life, the story didn’t feel rushed or like an info-dump.  Farmer’s pacing is excellent, giving enough information to keep the story going.  So much of the world-building is discovered through Matt’s eyes (although third person), which was done very well.

However, the ending felt strangely abrupt.  Matt goes through so much and has so many enemies within the house – and then the end.  It felt like a cop-out in some ways.  Not completely dissatisfying, but it almost felt like Farmer wanted a bridge so that she could roll into a second book.  Ending the first book in a more natural way wouldn’t have led into the second book that she wanted to write, so the first book gets a bit of a ??! ending.

51gvfiikj2l-_sy344_bo1204203200_

//published 2013//

The Lord of Opium picks up Matt’s story the day after the first  book ends.  In this book, Matt has a lot more difficult decisions, plus he’s battling with a lot of emotions and the aftermath from the ending of the first book.  Farmer brings up a lot more questions about humanity, conservation, drugs, cloning, immortality, slavery, immigration, whether the ends justifies the means, and whether or not we choose our own paths or if they are chosen for us.  These topics are handled very deftly.  I never really felt like she was preaching at me, yet I found myself pondering a lot of the questions she had raised.  Despite the fact that my life is nothing like Matt’s, I still somehow really related to him as a character, and felt like a lot of the dilemmas he faced were once that I could understand.  To me, that’s a sign of solid writing.

Because these are children’s books, we had a happy ending. I  felt like it was a bit of a stretch, but I like happy endings, too, so I was willing to roll with it.  I actually would be totally into another book about Matt to see where his dreams take him next.  All in all, I would go with 3/5 for both books, but a really high 3, like a 3.8, and recommended.

A few spoiler-filled ?!?!? moments below the break – don’t read them until you’ve read the books!  But if you have read the books, I’d love to hear your opinions!

NB: These books were first brought to  my attention by a great review of The House of the Scorpion over on Paper Breathers.  Thanks, Sophie!

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The Girl with All the Gifts // by M.R. Carey

the_girl_with_all_the_gifts

//published 2014//

I was pretty skeptical about this book before I started it.  Actually, when I listed my next five reads in November’s Rearview Mirror last week, I mentioned that I thought this book had a high DNF possibility.  This book has been languishing on the TBR since June 2014 when Sophie reviewed it.  I’m the type of person who doesn’t always enjoy being mind-blown by books (so often that’s code for “completely illogical leap off a cliff”), but Sophie and I enjoy a lot of the same books, so the fact that she really liked this one kept it on the list.

Last Sunday was cold and windy and drizzly and the husband and I spent almost the entire day lazing about the house.  I picked up this book and thought I would read the first chapter or two so I could say that I had given it a chance and then move on.  Except once I started reading, I basically couldn’t put it down.  I was drawn in from the very first paragraph:

Her name is Melanie.  It means “the black girl”, from an ancient Greek word, but her skin is actually very fair so she thinks maybe it’s not such a good name for her.  She likes the name Pandora a whole lot, but you don’t get to choose.  Miss Justineau assigns names from a big list; new children get the top name on the boys’ list or the top name on the girls’ list, and that, Miss Justineau says, is that.

!??!?!?!  And for once in my life, the present tense narrative actually made sense.  It was used so very deftly – pushing the plot forward, making every more urgent, intense, uncertain.  Present tense is not for every book, or even for a lot of books.  But every once in a while, it makes a book almost magical, and that’s what it did here.

I read about 3/4 of this book on Sunday, devouring it in huge chunks. I had to work Monday morning, but when I got off, I didn’t get anything useful done around this house until I had finished the book.

This is one of those rare books where you really ought to know as little as possible going in, so I won’t tell you much of anything about the plot.  However, I was quite impressed by the way that plot moved along, and the way that Carey gives us just the right amount of information at just the right time.  The third person narrative rotates between some different characters, so you see multiple perspectives of the story and of the world Carey has created.  This is especially interesting when several disparate characters are forced to work together.

In a lot of ways, this book is a discussion about what makes us human and what we should do with that.  And while I didn’t really feel like this story answered all the questions it raised, it was still a very thoughtful kind of book.

I’ll say that I didn’t agree with the way this book ends.  Melanie makes a decision with far-reaching impact, and I didn’t feel like it was her decision to make, no matter whether her decision was right or wrong.  I’d love to hear from anyone else who has read this book, whether or not you agreed with the ending.

I didn’t enjoy every word of this book.  There were times that I didn’t agree with the direction the story went, and while I didn’t mind some of the moral questions being left unanswered, there were still a few times that I felt like the story itself had some loose ends.  There was also a scene where the main scientist describes in what I felt was incredibly unnecessary detail exactly how she does a dissection of the brain.  Seriously, I do not need three pages of play-by-play on how to remove a brain.

Speaking of the main scientist being female, the discussion questions in the back of this book were amazingly lame.  My personal favorite was asking whether or not I would have liked this character better if she was male.  Asking me if a person who is a total ass would be more likable as a male is honestly rather insulting.

On the whole, though, I think I’m going with a 4/5 for this book.  While I had some quibbles about some of the story – and definitely with the ending – it was overall a pretty un-put-down-able book, and a recommended read… as long as you have a big chunk of time to devote to it, because you probably won’t want to put it down…

The Fold // by Peter Clines

The-Fold-jacket-image

//published 2015//

I got basically nothing else done on the day I started reading The Fold.  Somehow, the writing completely engaged me, and I couldn’t put it down.  In retrospect, I can see all kinds of holes in this story’s logic (including a major one that I’ll put in the spoiler section), but I am still giving this book 4/5 just because it was irresistible reading for me.

Mike is a high school teacher.  Just a normal guy trying to live a normal life.  But his friend, who works for the government, approaches him with a possible job, Mike agrees to at least attend the meeting – even though he isn’t really interested in the gig.

Out west, a group of scientists have been working several years on a project, and are seeking more grant money.  Mike’s friend wants Mike to go to their project and assess whether what is happening there is on the up-and-up.  The project involves a sort of teleportation, wherein dimensions are folded together, so that a single step can pass over a long distance.  I got a little bit of deja vu when I was reading this, because it really brought to mind Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, which I read many, many years ago and barely remember.  But the part I do remember is that the example used was an ant at one end of a string, trying to get to the other end.  Twelve inches for him to walk to get to the other side of the string – unless the two ends are brought close together in a “U” shape.  Then the ant is able to travel one inch (or less) – but still gets to the other side of the string: a wrinkle in time.

Clines uses a similar concept by putting two dots on opposite sides of a piece of a paper, but then folding the paper so they touch: the dimensions are folded together, and the dots are now next to each other, even though they are still technically on opposites sides of the paper.

Honestly, the whole book was super sketch when it came to science, and I read a lot of reviews ragging on it for that.  So if you like your sci-fi to be amazingly sound science, this isn’t for you.  But if you’re like me, and you just want your sci-fi to be entertaining and exciting – well, you may enjoy this tale.

The ending was a little weak, but I think that if I had read Clines’s other book, 14, I may have understood it better.  But this was another one of those cases where I have no idea the two books are linked until it’s too late.  I just don’t understand why, if an author is going to make two of his books interconnected – even loosely – no one bothers to mention that at the beginning.  Like, “Oh, hey, you can totally read this independently, but if you want the full impact, read this other one first!”  I hate reading things out of order, so this is super annoying to me.

Bit of a spoiler rant below, but all in all a fun, engrossing read – and #9 for 20 Books of Summer!!!

20booksfinal

 

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