Thursday, January 28, 2016

"Cress" by Marissa Meyer

I was so happy to get off the waitlist for "Cress" over my holiday break. The Lunar Chronicles has gotten stuck in my mind, and I can't wait for the the each installment of this impeccable SciFi-fantasy-fairy tale series. This review will necessarily contain spoilers for the first two books, so if you want to avoid them, just know that the series is worth continuing.

Everyone who wants to avoid spoilers gone? Good. "Cress" opens with Cress, a young Lunar girl who is stuck on a satellite orbiting Earth. She's been hiding the Lunar ships from Earth's radar's and satellite due to her brilliant programming skills. She's also been closely following the exploits of Cinder in her abundant spare time, even hiding their ship from the Lunars. So when she has the opportunity to reach out to Cinder & crew, she seizes it, and this Rapunzel's rescue is underway. Unsurprisingly, it does not go smoothly.

We see our protagonists scattered after the botched rescue, and much of the book is spent on their efforts to reunite. Though it can feel diverted from central plot advancement, Levana's exploits continue & Kai struggles with his choices in the background. Most interesting for me is the exploration of Cinder's development of her gift and her internal conflict over using it. She knows it it's awful to use mind control, yet she finds herself turning to it in times of need. She sees how seductively easy the gift can make achieving her ends. We see her struggle with this, and it's a mature exploration of a complicated theme for a YA book, as I have come to expect from this series.

Minor complaints: Cress & Captain Thorne's romance is cute, if a bit predictable. They won me over in the end. Sure, Cress ties into the main group a bit too conveniently, but it's a novel. I'll accept it. Overall, an enjoyable installment, setting me up for the final book.

Verdict: Affirmed. If you like this series, don't stop now.

"Cress" by Marissa Meyer, published February 4, 2014 by Feiwel & Friends. Audio narration by Rebecca Soler, published February 4, 2014 by Macmillan Audio.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

"American Housewife" by Helen Ellis

FTC Disclosure: I received an e-ARC of this title from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. All views are my own.

One of my 2016 New Year's resolutions is to read more short stories. Helen Ellis's collection "American Housewife" was released on January 12 to much acclaim, so I was excited to get approved for an ARC. This has been a wonderful collection to ease into my resolution - I thought I'd space them out one per day, but I loved these stories so much that I plowed through them all during the big snowstorm last weekend.

Helen Ellis is a professional poker player and a housewife herself. These stories are about housewives from different walks of life. Highlights include a woman married to a man gifted with the ability to fit women in the perfect bra, two women fighting over the decorations in their shared hallway, a woman welcoming a new member to her book club, and an author participating in a reality show. There are also several brief entries that felt more like food for thought than full stories - I still loved them.

Ellis writes with snark and wit, and creates modern characters who are both larger than life and in touch with the real world we all in inhabit every day. This collection was a great way to kick off my short story resolution, and I recommend it for anyone interested in seeing whether short stories could work for them.

Verdict: Affirmed. I can't wait to see what Helen Ellis does next.

"American Housewife" by Helen Ellis, published January 12, 2016 by Doubleday.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

"Lost & Found" by Brooke Davis

In honor of its paperback release today, I am re-posting my review of "Lost & Found" by Brooke Davis, originally published in the Morningside Muckraker.

(FTC Disclosure: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review)

Seven-year-old Millie is obsessed with dead things, keeping a record of all she encounters. Following the death of her father, she is abandoned by her mother in a department store. Here, she meets Karl, a nursing home escapee, and Agatha Pantha, a reclusive shut-in, each grappling with losses of their own.

Karl is a typist by profession, still reeling from his wife’s death and his son’s decision to place him in a nursing home. Agatha was so shaken by the sudden death of her husband that she hasn’t left her house in years. Millie is trying to understand why her mother left her, and the three embark on a journey to find Millie’s mother before she leaves Australia for America. Hijinks ensure.

This quirky little book from debut Australian novelist Brooke Davis tried so hard to win me over. Millie is endearing, and Karl and Agatha have their winsome moments. But, ultimately, the characters were each a bit too out-there; the book lacks a grounded center to counter the crazy. This particularly shows through in the logistical gaps in the ending, which left me more frustrated than satisfied or pleasantly curious. Throw in some less-than-pleasing descriptions of body parts without any good reason and quotations written in italics, and things got a bit grating in parts. The author’s expertise in coping with grief and loss shines through at places, but is too often overshadowed by the quirk and crazy,

Verdict: Jury’s Out. It’s all a bit much for me, but the novel might appeal to some more explicitly interested in themes of loss and found families.

"Lost & Found" by Brooke Davis, re-published January, 26, 2016 by Dutton. First published January 27, 2015 by Hachette.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

"Glory O'Brien's History of the Future" by A.S. King

Book Riot has been feeding by Overdrive queue lately, and I am loving it. Following their excellent recommendation of "The Adoration of Jenna Fox," I listened to the All the Books! Podcast episode on dysfunctional families, which recommended "Glory O'Brien's History of the Future."

Glory and her best friend Ellie drink the powdered remains of a petrified bat and are given glimpses of the past and the future when they lock eyes with people. They see that person's ancestors and descendants. Through these visions, Glory pieces together the story of the second American Civil War, fought over women's rights. She begins to write down the story as a warning, and to figure out her and her family's role in that war. Yes, it's a strange premise. If you can get accept this, and other strange premises, you're in for a great novel.

Behind the visions of the future and the coming civil war, is a grounded, relatable, believable story about familial relationships and how our parents' decisions shape us, much like "The Adoration of Jenna Fox." Jenna's mother committed suicide when she was young, and her artistic father has stopped painting. Jenna has begun to explore photography, her mother's chosen medium. Through her mother's dark room, Jenna begins to form a fuller image of her mother, and learns of her parents' relationships with Ellie's parents, who run the commune across the road. Through visions and her mother's belongings, Jenna sees how the past has shaped the present, and how her current decisions will shape the future.

Verdict: Affirmed. Either of these two stories - the visions and coming war, or Jenna's family exploration - would have stood just fine as separate novels. Woven together, though, they make an even stronger whole. Audio narration is also superb.

"Glory O'Brien's History of the Future" by A.S. King, published October 14, 2014 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Audio narration by Christine Lakin, published October 14, 2014 by Hachette Audio.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

"The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend" by Katarina Bivald

(FTC Disclosure: I received an e-ARC of this book through NetGalley in exchange for my unbiased review)

While browsing through NetGalley, I was excited to see a book compared to one of my favorites, "The Storied Life of AJ Fikry" and described as for people who like books. While "The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend" did not quite live up to that high praise, it was still a light, enjoyable read.

Sara is a young woman from Sweden, taking her first trip outside the country to visit her American pen pal, Amy. Amy lives in the teeny tiny town of Broken Wheel, Iowa & the two have been exchanging letters & books for years. Yet, when Sara arrives, she learns that Amy has recently passed away. With months to go until her ticket home, Sara settles into the small town's rhythms and quirks, befriending its few inhabitants, and opening a small bookstore. As she becomes an integral part of the town, other residents begin to concoct a plan to get her to stay.

I'll be upfront about my one large criticism. This book was mis-marketed. Though books are a central part of the story, it is not a book lover's book. At several points, characters detail the plots of other novels. I'm not just talking "Of course, Darcy and Lizzy Bennett get together!" but a blow-by-blow plot summary of every major point in Jane Eyre. To make it worse, these spoilers of other novels do not add anything to the actual story itself - no themes, no connections. They're just filler dialogue. A book that respected readers would not drop spoiler bombs without forewarning or at least a justifiable reason. Additionally, the book states "New books always had the strongest aroma," and refers to "those small, independent bookshops that had once existed" as if they no longer exist. As someone who both owns many used books, and shops in several small, independent bookshops, I can attest that neither statement is true. These little details make the novel feel out of touch with true book lovers, and made me question Sara as a devotee of all things books, no matter how much she may love reading.

Book-obsessive gripes aside, the core story is charming, if predictable. Sara is a fine narrator, and her love interest and the others in the town fill out the book nicely. At times the diverse characters felt like it was checking a box, but I recognize that in a town with an extremely small population in the middle of Iowa, there aren't that many people at all with whom to work out a diverse cast of characters. The novel touches on the difficulties of being the only black man in a small town, and the only gay couple in a conservative town, though it doesn't delve deeply into them. It's too lighthearted of a book. And if that's what you're in the mood for, this is a solid pick.

Verdict: Jury's out, my personal grudge against the out-of-step book decisions are getting in the way of my firmly affirming this book. But if you like charming, feel-good chick lit, this is a great pick that you're likely to enjoy.

"The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend" by Katarina Bivald, published January 19, 2016 by Sourcebooks Landmark.

Additionally, SOURCEBOOKS Landmark, the publisher of "The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend," is sponsoring a giveaway. They want to give a local bookstore $3,000, and you could win a $50 giftcard for nominating or voting for your favorite! Click here or the banner below to vote!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

"Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda" by Becky Albertalli

Like "All the Bright Places," the #bookstagram community on Instragram pointed me in the direction of this lovely YA novel. Once again, I'm glad I listened.

Simon is 16, gay, and not out to his small high school community. But he is out to his electronic pen pal, Blue, another anonymous student at this high school. When someone else from his school gets hold of one of his emails to Blue, Simon gets blackmailed and has to navigate how to come out on top of normal high school drama.

Above all, this novel felt real. Simon's conundrum is somewhat of his own making, and also completely awful Yet even though it's dealing with romance and blackmail, the core of the novel remains light. It's a pleasant change of pace from some other, very heavy, YA lit I've read this year.

My favorite aspect of the novel, though, was Simon's relationships with his friends. Teenage friendships are tricky to navigate, with the hormones, the jealousy, the fickleness, even among the closest of friends. This novel captured that perfectly, on top of the pitch-perfect does-he-or-doesn't-he-like me we all know and remember from high school. It's a fun romp with a nice bit of emotional resonance.

Verdict: Affirmed. It's a solid YA rom-com.

"Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda" by Becky Albertalli, published April 7, 2015 by Balzer + Bray. Audio narration by Michael Crouch, published April 7, 2015 by HarperAudio.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

"Scarlet" by Marissa Meyer

[This review necessarily contains spoilers for the first novel in the Lunar Chronicles, "Cinder." If you're here to see if the rest of the series holds up before diving in, this second installment definitely does. Read no further if spoilers concern you.]

"Scarlet" picks up where "Cinder" left off, though you might not know at first. Scarlet Benoit is in France, looking for her missing grandmother. She meets Wolf, a mysterious street fighter with a dangerous past. As they forge an uneasy alliance and embark on a mission to find Scarlet's grandmother, Cinder is working on escaping from prison so she can make her way to France and figure out more of her own background. Queen Levana still looms large as a threat, manipulating her way to a marriage with Prince Kai.

This is a solid second installment, with a clever retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, and new characters who make great additions to the established cast. Cinder is still a strong female protagonist, and Scarlet joins her ranks. It's clear they're heading toward a meeting from the onset of the book, and I can't wait to see them team up and play off each other's strengths as the series continues.

Verdict: Affirmed. Another solid fairy-tale retelling set in an intriguing Sci Fi world, with great additions to the cast. Now, I'm looking forward to getting off the holds list for "Cress."

"Scarlet" by Marissa Meyer, published February 5, 2013 by Feiwel and Friends. Audio narration by Rebecca Soler, published February 5, 2013 by Macmillan Audio.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Best of 2015

In keeping with last year's decision, I've waited until the year was actually over to compile my top books for 2015. It felt like a weird year in reading for me. In 2014, I loved so many of the new releases I read, and read more new releases than I had previously. This year, there wasn't a lot of fiction that really stuck. I did read more nonfiction than I previously had, and a lot of it was very good. I look forward to including more nonfiction in my reading going forward.

For this list, I'm pulling from the140 books (46,386 pages, according to Goodreads!) I read last year, no matter the publication date. I'll note if a title was a 2015 release, and have linked to my reviews of the books where applicable. I didn't consider titles I have read previously that I re-read this year (or "The Night Circus" would continuously top the list, as I seem to read it every year).

If there a 2015 book you I missed? Let me know what your favorite reads were this year!

1. "Not My Father's Son" by Alan Cumming. A 2014 title that I didn't get to until early this year. This memoir would have been incredible whether or not the author was famous. Alan Cumming's memoir of coming to terms with his family's history will stay with me for a long, long time. I've recommended this widely since finishing it.

2. "Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption" by Bryan Stevenson. Another 2014 title that I read early in 2015. A depressing, moving, inspirational critique of the American justice system that should be required reading everywhere.

3. "Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things" by Jenny Lawson. The first 2015 book to make this list, and another memoir. My review of this is forthcoming, as I find the words to capture how perfect this magical unicorn of a book truly is. Lawson pulls off a memoir about her mental illness that is funny, relatable, and heartbreaking all at once.

4. "The Incarnations" by Susan Barker. Another 2015 release, and one of the last books I read in 2015. I'm so glad this twisty, layered tale made its way into my TBR this year. For fans of "Cloud Atlas," this novel of previous lives and intertwined souls is sure to please.

5. "George" by Alex Gino. This middle-grade novel about a transgender child who just wants to play Charlotte when her class puts on a play of "Charlotte's Web" had my teary-eyed and smiling while walking my dog. It's a capital-I Important book, and a thoroughly heartwarming and enjoyable read as well.

6. "Pure," "Fuse," and "Burn" by Julianna Baggott - The entire Pure trilogy had to make this list, since I read them in quick succession & loved them all. I've recommended this Sci Fi/dystopian/post-apocalyptic trilogy to everyone from my mom to college friends, and it seems to be going over well everywhere.

7. "Signs Preceding the End of the World" by Yuri Herrera - another 2015 release that sneaked onto this list at the end of the year. This slim little novel tackles family, immigration, and identiy with a hefty side of literary allusions.  Review forthcoming.

8. "Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President" by Candice Millard - Colleagues this summer turned me on to Candice Millard's biographies that read like novels & I am now a fan. This book opened my eyes to the President James A. Garfield's unique place in history and his wasted potential due to his assassination only four months into his presidency.

9. "All the Bright Places" by Jennifer Niven - Another 2015 release dealing with mental illness, but this time a YA novel. I didn't expect to like this book as much as I did, and I'm glad I stuck with it.

10. "Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town" by Jon Krakauer - an important piece of reporting by a widely-respected journalist. This book brings much-needed attention to problems plaguing the American justice system's handling of rape.

My other five-star books this year, in no particular order: