Month: August 2016

Books: 3 Mini-Reviews (aka What’s Good to Read)

I read a lot, and don’t always have time to write full, formal reviews of everything. Rather than not sharing some really great books, I decided to try these mini-reviews. Enjoy!

These are the three books that I’ve read this week, and my thoughts. They are in no particular order.

Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley:

A sweet, funny, sad story of a man and his beloved dachshund, Lily and the Octopus actually made my cry. Although the theme is a bit depressing, there are plenty of happy moments, and the sadness is worth it, as you will cherish this wonderful glimpse into the history of a very special relationship. I recommend this to anyone who likes a unique, quality read. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves dogs, and understands that they are worth the effort, even when they make you cry.

 

Teeth by Hannah Moskowitz:

Teeth tells the story of a teenage boy who moves to a remote island with his family in search of a miracle cure for his sick younger brother. The story itself is compelling, but the book really shines when it focuses on the feelings that tough, hip, foul-mouthed Rudy has for his brother and for his new friend. There are supernatural elements in the book (magic fish, and one very special character), but I would not classify this as fantasy. Instead, I think of it as realism, with a touch of the unknown. One note: Rudy, as the first-person narrator, swears a lot. Although it is part of his character, and makes him seem like a real teenager, I would proceed with caution in recommending this to older kids. (It is definitely too adult for younger ones.)

 

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin:

This is an unusual and intriguing story, told by first-person narrator Mara. Mara has been through a trauma, and is trying to get her life back on track. Unfortunately, she is hampered in this by some strange happenings. The story moves along at a nice pace, and is occasionally interspersed with dreams/memories of the past events that helped lead Mara to her present situation. In addition to Mara herself, the other relevant characters (her brothers Daniel and Joseph, and classmates Noah and Jamie) are clearly drawn and appealing. One note: this is book 1 of a trilogy, so plan accordingly. The story ends with a startling revelation, so plan to acquire the second book (The Evolution of Mara Dyer) before you finish this one.

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Book Review: Incubation

Laura DiSilverio has, in the past, primarily been a cozy mystery author. Incubation marks her debut in a new genre, and it is a very impressive one! This is Book One in an anticipated trilogy (Book Two, Incineration, came out in June of 2016, and Book Three can’t be published soon enough for me).

Incubation centers around the life and adventures of Everly Jax, a young woman who discovers that her future lies in leaving the only life she’s ever known to enter the dangerous outside world. Luckily, she is accompanied by two close friends, and the trio set out to achieve their different (but mostly complementary) goals.

All of the primary characters are very well realized, and come across as genuine and individualized. Even some of the more minor characters are portrayed with enough care and detail that the reader is curious to learn more about their backstories. The interactions between the young people ring true, and the dialog sounds very much the way I imagine the similarly-aged youth in my life would talk if they found themselves in this story.

The plot is action-packed and well paced. Everything that happens makes sense, and occurs in a logical progression. Of note, the main characters do not instantly morph into junior McGuyvers, able to perform incredible feats easily. They undergo some training, and learn some new helpful skills, but they’re not portrayed as being magically able to handle everything that comes their way, and they sometimes (as teens may do) make bad decisions and mistakes. Another noteworthy bit: when the main character (Everly) has to do something she considers bad or wrong, she thinks and worries about it afterwards.  I find this adds realism to the plot, as well as likability to the character. After all, how many teens who’ve led a fairly sheltered life would transition easily and without moral dilemma to a new life involving some level of hurting others?

The world of the story is well thought-out and makes sense. A critical element for dystopian fiction is that the brave new world of the story is clear to the reader. DiSilverio does a wonderful job of making sure that the reader understands the environment through which the characters are moving, even as the characters themselves learn more about the realities of their world. The fact that she does so without coming across as overly descriptive or boring adds to the overall enjoyment of this book.

Although it goes without saying, I really, really loved reading Incubation, and congratulate the author on succeeding so very well with her foray into this new genre.

Five out of five delectable wedges of Cherokee Rose (a fabulous creamy cheese made in Georgia, US)

 

Book Review: The Readaholics and the Gothic Gala

The Readaholics and the Gothic Gala by Laura DiSilverio is Book 3 in the author’s Book Club Mystery series. Normally, I try to avoid starting a series any way other than with Book 1, but this one intrigued me enough to pick up the newly released (8/2/16) third book. What was it about this title that had me abandoning protocol and diving right into Book 3, you ask? The simple answer is: “Rebecca”! The title Readaholics are reading and discussing the du Maurier classic, which is one of my favorites. I was pleased to see that, during the course of the story, the club actually meets and discusses “Rebecca”. In addition, the main character thinks about the classic story throughout her adventures.

Other highlights from The Readaholics and the Gothic Gala include:

  1. The main character, Amy-Faye Johnson, is an event planner, and her main event for the duration of this book is a series of events that make up the Gothic Gala celebration. I had a general sense of the definition of gothic fiction before reading this book, but I actually learned a good bit more by following the events of the Gala. The information flowed naturally, however, and never felt like factual overload.
  2. Laura diSilverio includes lots of current pop-culture references, which gave the book a modern feel. I particularly enjoyed the fact that I share several common popular interests with Amy-Faye (and/or Laura DiSilverio).
  3. The suspects and red herrings were plentiful. My initial guess for “whodunit” was not correct, but not entirely wrong, either. When the “big reveal” occurred and all was made clear, everything made sense and fit with the previously provided clues.
  4. Starting a series with Book 3, as expected, left me playing a bit of catch-up with the characters. However, I was able to quickly figure out the major players, and was never left feeling that I really *should have* read books 1-2 first. I definitely plan to go back and catch up, and have already ordered book 1 (The Readaholics and the Falcon Fiasco).
  5. Although the author does not rehash (or spoil) the events of the previous books, Amy-Faye does reference things that have happened and mysteries she has been involved with before. I liked this and found it added realism to the character. After all, if someone has been involved in any way with a murder investigation, that person would certainly think about it going forward, especially when faced with another crime.
  6.  The character of Maud is a delight! My favorite Maud moment comes when Amy-Faye reads aloud a note that was attached to a projectile directed at the group. Maud’s first comment is, “I hate sloppily used pronouns with unclear antecedent references.” I look forward to seeing more of her in future books!

Overall, I have to say that I really enjoyed this cozy mystery. Five out of five yummy slices of aged British Cheddar!

Book Review: Kids’ Letters to Harry Potter

I decided to read “Kids’ Letters to Harry Potter” because we’ve being working our way through the Harry Potter series as a read-aloud here, and I though it would be interesting (and adorable) to read what children would say to Harry if they had the chance. I was partially right.

As promised, the book includes lots of letters written by children. Some are funny, some are sweet, some are quite original (as the kids come up with their own fantastical background stories), and some read like a school assignment (ie start with “Dear Harry”, then make your first sentence a greeting, like “Hi, Harry”, then introduce yourself, then ask a couple of questions). Regardless, reading the honest words of children was entertaining and enjoyable.

The book fails a bit when it moves on to the promised “interviews with some of the children”. The “interviews” appear to be more of a five-question form that was filled out by each child:

  1. What do you like best about Harry Potter?
  2. Do you have any other favorite characters?
  3. Why do you think the series is so popular with kids?
  4. If you could have any of Harry’s powers, spells, or magical objects, which would it be and why?
  5. What would you suggest J.K. Rowling include in an upcoming book? Should Harry and Hermione become romantically involved? Should Harry become an exchange student at another school?

While the first couple of interviews were worth reading, they quickly became repetitious and dull. The interview portion of the book would have been so much better if someone had taken the time to actually read each letter, and ask the child relevant questions. If the writer presented herself as a witch attending a school like Hogwarts in her own country, ask her more about her life of magic. If the child expressed special interest in Sirius and Buckbeak (or other secondary characters), ask why he was so interested in them, and what he thought they were doing now. Children have such open and unique minds; I would have loved it if someone affiliated with the book had taken the time to explore more of what some of the letter-writers had to say.

On a nitpicking note, one letter was included twice, and attributed to different writers. On page 83-84, the letter that starts with “How did you first feel when you became a wizard?” was signed by “Your Unknown Friend, Lindsay, Age 12”. On pages 94-95, the exact same letter was written by “Your Unknown Friend, Jasmel (Jason and Melissa).

On a happier note, the fantasy world illustrations by Syrena Done were quite lovely, even though they had nothing to do with either the Harry Potter series or the letters in the book.

Overall, 2.5 out of 5 American Cheesy Singles (mostly for laziness in not conducting proper interviews, NOT because of the children’s writing).

 

 

Book Review: The Totally Gnarly, Way Bogus Murder of Muffy McGregor

muffy

First off, I must say that I started “The Totally Gnarly, Way Bogus Murder of Muffy McGregor” expecting to like it. I was already familiar with author Teddy Durgins’s writing style from following his movie reviews years ago, and I anticipated enjoying that style and natural wit translating easily into a full-length mystery. I was definitely NOT disappointed!

The story is centered around the lives (and local mall) of three teen boys in Laurel, Maryland in the 1980s. The characters ring incredibly true, as does the dialog. Lines like, “I’m walking away. God’s now preparing two very special bolts of lightning for you two hyenas, and I don’t want to be anywhere near either of you when he sends ’em down” (from Buddy) and “That wouldn’t be a miracle. A miracle would be a shih tzu that can sing ‘Figaro’. You and I solving this case would be just dumb luck” (by Rabinowitz) are sheer genius.

The book is also peppered with lots of 80s pop culture references…from movies and tv shows to on-air tv personalities, any child of the 80s would love this book for that homage alone. However, there is much else to enjoy within these pages. The story itself, a murder mystery involving the death of a popular cheerleader, is excellent. There are enough clues, dead ends, and red herrings to please any mystery buff. The mystery is made all the better because it is actually being solved by truly amateur sleuths (aided by a local PI). It’s delightful to watch main character Sam bumble his way along, sometimes uncovering actually useful information. It’s also interesting to watch Sam trying (with an approximately equal level of success) to navigate his own life. I hope Mr. Durgin decides to grant Sam and his friends additional opportunities to fight crime and try to grow up!

On a final, spoiler-free note, the ending is amazing. It’s not at all what I expected, and it was a bit jarring, but upon reflection, it fit the story, the characters, and the tone of the novel perfectly. It also earns bonus points for truly surprising me, which is NOT easy to do.

Congratulations to Teddy Durgin for an amazing first novel, and my fondest hopes for more to come in the future!