July 28, 2014

The Bitter Kingdom

by Rae Carson
First sentence: "We run."
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Others in the series: The Girl of Fire and Thorns, The Crown of Embers
Content: It's a pretty complex book, full of politics and machinations. But, even with all the fighting and killing and wars (and some brief sexytimes), it's not a graphic book. It's in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but I think a strong younger reader would enjoy it as well.

Queen Elisa is in a terrible predicament. Her country has been taken over by an ursuper, Conde Eduardo. The man she loves and the commander of her Royal Guard has been kidnapped by traitors. And she only has a few friends she can count on. The problem is that she needs to head into Invierne and convince them to stop invading her country. And figure out how to deal with her newfound power from her Godstone.

That doesn't even begin to touch this complex and fascinating ending to a complex and fascinating trilogy. I've always loved the religious element to this story, how God plays a role in Elisa's life. I really enjoyed the way Carson pitted the Joyans and the Inverinos against each other; both think they are right, and both think the other is wrong. It's really a book about compromise and understanding, and I loved that.

Elisa has become, for me, one of my favorite heroines. She's not kick-butt fighter, but rather a savvy, clever, and fascinating character; someone who uses her brain rather than her fighting skills. Carson also gave us Hector's point of view a few times in this book, something which I appreciated. While I've loved seeing Hector from Elisa's point of view, it was interesting to be inside his head and to know a little more how he works.

I do think that the only thing I would have done differently with this series is wait until they were all out so I could read them one after another. I think the experience of this story would be that much better if I had read it all in one gulp.

July 26, 2014

A Horse Called Hero

by Sam Angus
First sentence: "Wolfie stopped, distracted by the stacks of sandbags and newly dug trenches."
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There's really nothing objectionable for the target audience, though there are letters written in cursive, and I know my 3-5 graders would have problems deciphering those. There's also several intense situations, so if you have a sensitive child, you might want to shy away from that.

Dorothy and Wolfgang Revel -- they go by Dodo and Wolfie, however -- are children in London the winter of 1940 when the German bombs start dropping. Their father is called up to serve in the army -- he was a celebrated commander during World War I -- and they are sent off to Northern England to live with strangers. They're doing okay, until word comes back that their father was arrested for desertion. Then, they are outcasts in this strange place. That is, until they're taken in by the school teacher. Whereupon Wolfie chances across a horse being born and adopts it for his own.

If you can't tell my my enthusiastic summary of the first 50 pages (which is really all that is; this book covers an enormous amount of time), I am not a horse person. And, alas, this book did nothing to help with that. I kind of had hopes that this would be Inspiring and Uplifting and help me see what people find in horse books, but... no. I was bored. The basic plot revolves around Wolfie's love for Hero The Horse and the kids' concern about their father. There was an incident when Hero saved them after they got trapped in the bog, and another when Hero helped Wolfie get out of a mine after an explosion, but by then, I was so Bored because of the lack of Real Plot (and the extended time; Wolfie was 5 or so when it started, and 14 by the end), I was just skimming.

I am sure that there are kids who would Love this one, but I am not one of them.

July 20, 2014

10 Great Audiobooks

For quite a few years, I've gone to the library and picked out a few (sometimes upwards to a dozen) audiobooks to choose from as alternatives to music or movies in the car. This time, we got to talking about books we've listened to (and liked) over the years, and that prompted me to come up with a list of our favorite audiobooks. I've added a few of my personal favorites as well.

1. The True Meaning of Smekday, by Adam Rex; read by Bahni Turpin. This is one we still rave about; it's absolutely captivating and Turpin is fantastic as a narrator. In fact, we love it so much, we're kind of worried about the changes that they're making with the movie. Though we agree that Jim Parsons is perfect at J. Lo.

2. The House at Pooh Corner, by A. A. Milne; read by a whole cast. As I was going back through my records, it turns out we listened to this one before. Doesn't matter; we were still captivated by the voices (particularly Geoffry Palmer as Eeyore) and you can't go wrong with the Pooh bear stories.

3. The Black Cauldron, by Lloyd Alexander; read by James Langton. I think hubby and I enjoyed this one more than the girls did. They complained there were too many characters and it was confusing. Perhaps, they were just too young. Langton, however, was a perfect narrator.

4. Encyclopedia Brown Gets His Man by Donald J. Sobol; read by Greg Steinbruner. Another one we rave about, still. The girls have asked, on multiple occasions, if we can get more of these, but I haven't found any yet. We loved listening to the stories and trying to solve along. And Steinbruner was excellent.

5. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis; read by Michael York. If you haven't noticed yet, we tend to pick classics to listen to while we road trip. Partially that's because we want to expose our kids to them, but also because I think they're more interesting when read by a good reader. This is certainly true for Lewis's books. The ones we've listened to have been fantastic.

6. The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman; read by the author. The only thing I have to say is that if you've never heard Gaiman read one of his books, you're missing out. I'd listen to him read a tech manual and be hanging on every word. It helps, of course, that he's a great writer and storyteller as well.

7. Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor; read by Khristine Hvam. Taylor's a beautiful writer, and Hvam captures her characters perfectly. Especially Brimstone. It was one that I just listened to on my own, but she had me hanging on every word.

8. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee; read by Sissy Spacek. It's one of those that everyone should read, and Sissy Spacek's perfect southern drawl compliments Lee's words quite nicely.

9. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson; read by Peter Altschuler. Often, when listening to an audio book, the reader makes or breaks the experience. In this case, the reader made it. He captured everything perfectly, and I had a better experience than I think I would have if I had just read the book.

10. One Summer: America, 1927, by Bill Bryson; read by the author. Much like Neil Gaiman, Bryson's books are better listened to. He's got an incredibly dry sense of humor, and that suits his writing quite well. They're chock full of information, though, so don't be surprised if you end up checking out the print book as well.

What have been some of your favorite audio books?

July 18, 2014

Loot: How to Steal a Fortune

by Jude Watson
First sentence: "No thief likes a full moon."
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: The only think I can think of is that it's a bit intense, action-wise. Probably on par with the Percy Jackson books. There's no swearing, no romance. It's happily in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

This book -- combined with The Great Greene Heist (it's a trend! Does two books make a trend?) -- has gotten me thinking about the implausible versus the impossible. It is implausible that Jackson Green could have thrown together a crew to scam less-than-intelligent adults into exposing a blackmailing scheme. It is highly impossible, however, that 12-year-old March McQuin could have gotten together a crew in order to steal back 7 Moonstones that his illustrious thief father, Alfie, stole 12 years before. (Granted, the premise behind the Heist Society books by Ally Carter is also impossible.)

Impossible, however, doesn't mean "bad".

In fact, Watson has put together quite a ripping tale. After Alfie's death during a heist in Amsterdam, March discovers he has a 12-year-old twin sister, Julia, that he didn't know about. And then, at Alfie's funeral, March and Julia are confronted by the woman from whom the moonstones were stolen. She's offered them $7 million in order to steal them back. In a week. They're up against incredible odds: Alfie's old partner, who has just recently gotten out of jail, are after the stones as well.

Even though the premise is impossible, Watson does a fantastic job keeping up the pace. The chapters are short, the pacing quick, making it a perfect read for reluctant readers. Plus, it's action-packed with chases (both in the car and on foot) and rooftop falls as well as planning and executing some pretty amazing heists.

No, it's not a story that could actually "happen". But it was still a lot of fun.

July 16, 2014

Cleopatra in Space

Book One: Target Practice
by Mike Maihack
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There's some violence, but nothing terribly graphic. What struck me is that there is a lot of exposition (with long words) in this one. I'm not sure if K understood everything that went on, but she got the gist of it. Which is what graphic novels are great at.

It's her 15th birthday, Cleopatra (yes, that Cleopatra) doesn't want to go through with her party. The ceremony, the pomp, the everything. So, she sneaks away from her tutor, and discovers a portal to a future time and place that is being besieged by a tyrannical dictator. The prophecies declare that she will be the Savior of the world, but first: she has to go to academy to figure things out.

It's essentially a fish-out-of-water story; BCE girl meets futuristic technology. I liked how she found everything boring, until she got to combat training. She took to that immediately. She's a girl of action, and she's smart and tough -- when it comes to combat. She's not a scholar and that's okay. The only thing that was a bit disconcerting was the whole talking cats. Cats in this world have evolved to the point where they kind of run things. And it's a bit weird. But that just may be me.

In the end, it reminded me a lot of Zita the Spacegirl -- both in the content as well as the artistic style -- which is a good thing. And I'm curious to see where Maihack goes next.