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Downton Abby Meets Jane Eyre in After the War Is Over by Jennifer Robson

October 23rd, 2016 No comments

Cover of After the War is OverThe thing that lingered with me long after I finished After the War is Over is the stark image of a country slowly knitting itself together after the devastation of World War I. Here is the States, World War I is usually glossed over in our high school history classes. I don’t ever remember truly absorbing how terrible this war was and how some of the greatest casualties were the soldiers who limped back from the battlefield alive but suffering from deep emotional wounds in a time when PTSD was barely understood and even more rarely accepted.

Against this rich backdrop, Charlotte Brown is a middle class girl who is determined to fight for the impoverished. Charlotte Brown is idealistic, focused, kind, hard-working and will always, always, always do the right thing without a second thought. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t have an ironic or cynical bone in her body, and this makes her about as bland as a weak cup of tea.

Fortunately, Jennifer Robson spices up her story with a Bronte-appropriate love story. Despite her best efforts, Charlotte finds herself drawn again and again to Edward Neville-Ashford, Earl of Cumberland. Edward is handsome, rich, and so blue-blooded that the Queen would approve. He also comes back from the war irreparably broken…and that has nothing to do with his missing leg.

Robson’s attention to detail as she paints a picture of the first year after the end of World War One is fascinating. She shows us the difficulties soldiers face as they try to transition back into civilian life and takes on PTSD in a time when “Cowardice” was still extremely misunderstood. The connection between Charlotte and Edward is undeniable, and the challenges they overcome together almost make me like Charlotte…almost.

Robson is a world-class talent, and it is testament to how well she constructed this book, that I didn’t even realize it was the second book in a three-part series until after I had finished it! While this book would probably be categorized as a historical romance, it will definitely appeal to any reader who wants to learn more about the early 1900s as well as any Downton Abby fan. I am definitely going to pick up the first book in the series, Somewhere in France.

Cinderella is an Android! – My Book Review of Cinder

August 23rd, 2016 No comments

Cover of Cinder by Marissa MeyerCinderella has come a long way from being the timid little servant I remember from my Disney-soaked childhood. In Cinder by smash hit author Marissa Meyer, our heroine isn’t exactly relegated to singing sweet melodies to her animal friends while she mournfully sweeps and cleans. Instead, “Cinder” is a well-known mechanic in New Beijing, where she fixes broken net screens and reboots burned out robots. Scratch the “timid” from her personality, and while we’re making changes, I should mention that Cinder isn’t exactly human, either. There’s a reason she knows her way around wires, circuits, and computer chips.

Cinder’s world is anything but a fairytale. Meyer takes us into a future that is slightly more technically advanced than our own but crippled by a terrible, incurable plague. Also, there are those pesky Lunars on the moon, led by an evil Queen intent on taking over the earth.

None of this is really Cinder’s business, until handsome Prince Kai stops by her mechanic booth requesting help to repair his robot…a robot that holds some very big secrets. This meeting lights the candle of a growing romance that Cinder refuses to recognize. She knows the prince would despise her if he ever realized what she really was.

If you’re wondering where the evil stepmother comes in, don’t worry, she’s there, and she throws plenty of wrenches into Cinder’s life, least of all forcefully volunteering her stepdaughter for plague research…of which none survive. The research, conducted at the castle, because…uh….uh….because, allows Cinder to bump in Kai again (and again) and also paves the way for some big discoveries about Cinder’s shrouded past.

Cinder is a fun, fast-paced adventure. Meyer’s world is unique but somehow instantly recognizable. We may be in the future, but her characters face age old trials and tribulations (though Cinder’s struggle with her too-small android foot is a bit of a unique situation). I found myself immersed in this story and made it easily to the end, even if I had some WTF moments along the way…like, if Cinder’s stepmother refused to buy her a new, correctly-sized android foot, then why wasn’t her android leg and android hand also extremely small?

I was also flummoxed by the fact that Prince Kai, always so burdened with the need to protect his people, would somehow think it was a grand idea to pack half the city into the castle for a ball…in the middle of a rampant, highly contagious plague! I’m not sure if New Beijing has a version of the CDC, but if they do, I’m pretty sure that idea would be quashed in a second.

Cinder’s biggest failing in my opinion, however, is a lackluster cast of characters. The evil Lunar queen is pretty much just completely and utterly evil for no discernable reason except that perhaps evilness is in vogue on the lunar surface. Prince Kai, as well, seems to have less personality than Cinder’s spunky robot friend, Iko. His sole character feature seems to be that he’s a decent guy.

Despite these hiccups, Cinder offers readers a unique twist on an old story that, overall, I enjoyed reading. As soon as I was done, I promptly placed the next book in the series, Scarlet, on hold. I’m looking forward to the continuation of Cinder’s adventures and to meeting a new character, Scarlet.

Rating: Four Stars

Who Should Read: Perfect for teens who enjoy a strong heroine who prefers rumpled, oil-stained clothes to gaudy dresses and who occasionally loses her body parts.

Book Review – The Amulet of Samarkand by Johnathan Stroud

June 16th, 2016 No comments

Cover: The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan StroudMagicians walk the streets of London, summoning demons to assist them in their endeavors as they rule benignly over the commoners of London…or at least this is what the young boy Nathaniel is told when he is thrust into the care of the middling magician Arthur Underwood as Underwood’s apprentice.

The djinn Bartimaeus has a different take on the situation. With sarcastic wit aplenty, he describes the poor plight of demons who are forced into slavery at the behest of their masters who use their power to cower the commoners into submission.

The paths of Nathaniel and Bartimaeus cross when Nathaniel, seething from a public embarrassment at the hands of hotshot magician Simon Lovelace, summons Bartimaeus in an effort to seek revenge. Nathaniel order Bartimaeus to steal a treasured token from Lovelace, the Amulet of Samarkand. Little does the boy know that this act will drag him and his skeptical djinn into a massive and dangerous conspiracy that reaches into the highest levels of the government.

Author Johnathan Stroud gives us a fresh new magical taste of London, but not all is what it seems. The magicians who proclaim their greatness are greedy, paranoid, and arrogant. The spirits they summon come in a variety of flavors, but Bartimaeus is certainly more than the wisecracking, cruel, and viscous demon that Nathaniel assumes him to be.

Speaking of Bartimaeus, he is now officially my favorite demon of all time. His sharp wit threads the book with refreshing humor, adding an extra shine to his adventures with the taciturn and often angry Nathaniel. Stroud performs a unique dance, smattering Bartimaeus’s first person narratives with a steady stream of footnotes. They take a little getting used to at first, but then they become a natural part of Bartimaeus’s story.

Though one could argue that this book is written for a YA or even Middle Grade audience (though the vocabulary seems far more advanced than most middle graders could handle), it will easily delight adults as well. Nathaniel is a complicated character who hovers right on the line between hero and anti-hero. A part of me always wanted to root for the young boy who felt so stepped upon, but it was also easy enough to see how dangerous he could become as he gave into his anger, his ambition, and his pride. Likewise, Bartimaeus is far more complicated than he or Nathaniel are willing to admit. Beneath his jokes and jabs is a spirit who has seen civilizations come and go throughout the ages, and he doesn’t hold out much hope for London.

The Amulet of Samarkand is a fascinating book filled with multi-layered characters, a simmering plot, hilarious wit, and some deep questions to consider for the next book in the Bartimaeus Trilogy, the Golem’s Eye.

Five stars!

Book Review of The Rosie Project

April 24th, 2016 No comments

Cover -- The Rosie ProjectDating is awkward, messy, and most damning of all – inefficient. Don Tillman is not a man who likes to waste his time. See: his stringently mapped out daily schedule which provides no room for deviation. Don jumps to the natural conclusion that rather than waste him time dating from an unknown pool of women, he will simply design an extensive scientifically valid survey that will efficiently filter out women who do not possess the characteristics of an ideal life partner.

Thus starts to Wife Project.

Author Graeme Simsion does the literary world a solid by bringing Don Tillman to life. We readers spend the story looking out through Don’s highly organized, logical, and entirely socially inept perspective. See: Don calmly explaining why his high-tech cycling jacket is far superior to the sports coats required at a fancy restaurant and should thus be accepted.

Simsion presents us with a fresh worldview from the mind of an individual with Asperger’s but never turns Don into a stereotype. He is simply Don, and it didn’t take long for me as a reader to begin cheering him on, groaning when he failed to pick up an obvious social cue, and watching with great curiosity as he navigated a world where people again and again failed to act logically.

When a young bartender (not barmaid) named Rosie comes into the picture, Don quickly dismisses her as a wife candidate, but something intrigues him about her. Without quite knowing why, Don agrees to lend her his expertise as a genetics professor as they search for Rosie’s biological father.

The Father Project soon usurps Don’s concentration from the Wife Project as he and Rosie find themselves fibbing, slinging drinks, and jetting across the world to solve the mystery. Don begins to notice that the barmaid possesses some likable qualities.

The Rosie Project is a romantic comedy turned on its head. Don is just about the least sexy knight in shining armor that you can imagine, but the chemistry between him and Rosy is real. Simsion is an extremely talented author who manages to mine great humor from his main characters without ever denigrating them.

If you’re like me, you’ll quickly fall head over heels for The Rosie Project.

Why You Need to Care About What’s Going on in America’s Most Violent and Hopeless Neighborhoods; My Review of Ghettoside by Jill Leovy

March 18th, 2016 No comments

Cover -- Ghettoside by Jill LeovyI picked up Ghettoside, because I wanted to try and understand why crime was so rampant in certain neighborhoods across the country. Was it poverty? Gangs? Drugs?

Ghettoside, by Jill Leovy took me across the the train tracks and into the living rooms within the ghetto as well as inside the police station where detectives work unrelentingly to solve the black-on-black murders that almost never make the news.

Leovy tackles the tragic statistics of black-on-black murder head on and digs into the causes that have turned small enclaves in Los Angeles into festering dens of gang activity, crime, suspicion of the police, and a heavy sense that the rest of the outside world doesn’t care.

Leovy’s greatest talent is her ability to humanize those who call the ghetto home and those who try to make it a little safer by putting murderers behind bars. We meet dedicated detectives, kids who join gangs for the protection they provide, prostitutes who risk their lives to testify in court, and broken-hearted parents who lose their children.

I couldn’t stop reading Ghettoside. Every page pulled me deeper and deeper into a place within my own country (actually, my own state of California) that I know so little about. The primary story of the murder of a black police detective’s son drives the plot forward, but truly Leovy’s deft portraits of the people who live and serve in the ghetto that stuck with me long after the last page.

This book was enlightening. I walked away with a much greater sympathy for the people trapped in the ghetto, incredible respect for the officers who serve these areas, and a better understanding of the highly complex problem of violence that requires the attention of a nation to fix.

Ready Player One Review: A Must-Read For Anyone Who Grew Up In The 80’s, Loves Videogame Culture, Or Who Always Roots For The Underdog.

February 10th, 2016 1 comment

Book cover, Ready Player OneThe world is a crappy place in 2044. People are starving. Indentured servitude is a thing. Murders are so common they barely make the news. The one escape is the Oasis, a massive virtual reality world teeming with possibility. Within the Oasis, a clever avatar can gain power, prestige, and just about any ability they can imagine.

In the real world, Wade Watts is a chubby, shy, and impoverished orphan trapped in “the stacks.” In the Oasis, however, he is Parzival, dedicated Gunter. Both Wade and Parzival have one singular purpose in life. They will find Halliday’s egg.

Five years in, most people assume that Halliday’s egg is a fantasy. When co-creator of the Oasis, James Halliday died, he hid the egg somewhere within the Oasis, trapped behind three gates that can only be opened with three keys. The one who finds the egg, earns Halliday’s massive fortune, and – even more valuable – control of the Oasis. For five years the first key remained hidden, that is until an avatar’s name finally hit the scoreboard. That name was Parzival.

When Wade discovers the first key to the gate, the race is on to find Halliday’s egg. Wade will have to use all of his cunning not to mention his encyclopedic memory of 80’s pop culture to stay ahead of his fellow gunters, as well as Innovative Online Industries, a merciless business enterprise that is willing to find the egg (and take control of the Oasis) at any cost.

Ready Player One was a constant and enjoyable adrenaline rush. Author Ernest Cline does a fantastic job of creating a believable and fantastic world, where reality and fantasy merge so deeply that the line is hard to distinguish. The Oasis springs vividly from the MMORPGs today, and is kind of like World of Warcraft mixed with Second Life mixed with Cline’s own imagination. The fact that these kids of the future are steeped in 80s trivia just adds to the fun. The clash of past and future works in dazzling fashion.

The exciting plot and engaging characters of Ready Player One is worth the read on its own. Wade is a sympathetic character, and it won’t take you long to start seriously rooting for him to somehow outsmart the well-moneyed and malicious IOI. However, there is a lot more to this novel if you want to dig deep. Cline challenges us to consider the risk of giving into the siren’s call of technology as a cure-all and of ignoring the decline of our real world in the process.

A must-read for anyone who grew up in the 80’s, loves videogame culture, or who always roots for the underdog.

Book Review of The Book Thief

January 28th, 2016 No comments

Cover of The Book ThiefDeath has a lot on his plate, especially in the 1940s as Europe erupts into war. And yet, every once in a while, Death gets distracted. One of those distractions is Liesel Meminger, a young girl who lives with foster parents in a small town outside of Munich. Liesel is a strong-willed girl who discovers the beauty and the power of words after her caring foster father, Hans, decides to teach her to read. Liesel is also a thief. Her first stolen treasure is The Gravedigger’s Handbook, snatched from the snow besides her brother’s grave.

As Liesel grows, reads, plays soccer, collects laundry, and avoids kissing her best friend, Rudy, the guns of war begin to erupt all over Germany. A promise Hans made many years ago leads him and Liesel to keep a very dark and dangerous secret, one that could save a life or put theirs in jeopardy.

Author Markus Zusak has woven a rich tapestry of words, images, and social commentary all bundled together into a few years of Liesel’s life. His ability to create complex characters and force them onto morale precipices in such a dangerous and uncertain time keeps The Book Thief moving at a good pace.

However, Zusak has a tendency to get drunk on his own words, swooning into melodramatic cascades of contemplation and constantly interrupting the story with special asides – some of which add substantially to the story and others that are as annoying as flies landing on the page.

Still, I can’t help but give this book five stars for the brilliant cast of characters Zusak created, for the intimate German town he built, and for ringing a good many tears out of me at the end.

Book Review of Dreamland By Sam Quinones

January 14th, 2016 No comments

Cover of Dreamland

Rating: 5 Out of 5 Stars

Last year, I started seeing news stories popping up about middle class kids in the middle of the country dying of heroin overdoses. It didn’t make any sense. I always associated heroin with crime-infested urban areas in the 70s.  How could it possibly be ending up in the veins of cheerleaders, football players, and college kids who grew up on Main Street?

Dreamland gave me the answer. Author Sam Quinones, a veteran journalist, dug into this story and what he found was both fascinating and depressing. Dreamland takes readers down a peculiar journey were two potent forces – big pharma and a novel new take on drug dealing – inadvertently collide. The results created a massive plague of addiction and death across the country. People got hooked on OxyContin and then switched to the potent, readily available, and cheap black tar heroin which was streaming across the border from a single small county in Mexico.

Throughout the book, Quinones gives readers a series of heartbreaking vignettes. We meet the confused and devastated parents of dead kids, young Mexicans for whom heroin dealing represents the only path out of poverty, and the small circle of police officers, drug rehab workers, coroners, and judges who fought to bring a voice to this mostly silent plague.

Dreamland was fascinating in the same way of an oncoming train wreck. I wanted to look away…but somehow I just couldn’t. Quinones is a masterful storyteller who follows a complex, sometimes bizarre web of people and circumstances. This isn’t just a book about junkies, dealers, and the people trying to stop them. It’s a book about circumstances. Quinones links the heroin epidemic to the decay of middle America, to the privilege and boredom of today’s youth, to the masterful and manipulative marketing campaign of Purdue Pharma, and a legacy of shame and embarrassment that kept parents from speaking out about their children’s problems.

Dreamland answered my questions about why kids were dying of heroin overdoses in America and gave me so much more to think about. If you can excuse the inappropriate pun, I was hooked from start to finish. I saw an ugly side of America, but one we can’t afford to ignore any longer.

(Note: Links in this post are Amazon affiliate links.)