April 16, 2014

Under the Egg

by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
First sentence: "It was the find of the century."
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There some descriptions of horrible events, but nothing graphic. I think younger readers might have problems with the languages -- there's French and Latin, though translations are provided -- and some of the names, but it's in the middle grade (grades 3-5) of the bookstore, and I think it fits there.

Theodora (call her Theo) Tenpenny is the granddaughter of an artist and the daughter of an extreme introvert. She lives in what was once a grand old New York City house, but over the years has become neglected. Her grandpa Jack has kept everything reasonably in shape over the years and has managed to keep the family afloat by being mostly self-reliant. But since he was hit by a car and died (which seems overly gruesome for a guy in his mid-80s), Theo's been in charge. And she's struggling.

That is, until she takes her grandfather's last words -- "Look under the egg" -- literally, and discovers that he's been hiding a very old painting underneath the one of an egg that's been hanging over their mantelpiece for years. Because she's spent her life in her grandfather's shadow, going to the Met and other art museums, Theo has a good eye, and realizes at once that this painting is something special. Something, perhaps, worth a lot of money.

However, as she and her new friend, Bodhi, find out, declaring a painting a lost work by a master is easy. Proving it is another matter. Especially when it turns out that this could be looted Nazi treasure.

On the one hand, there's a lot of information to be had in this slim book. Both art history as well as WWII history play a major role in the plot. But I think that Fitzgerald handles it well, even if all the information and history might make it harder for younger readers to get into the book. But, she gave us a couple of great characters in Bodhi and Theo; they really are a team that works well together. I enjoyed the old-fashioned sleuthing to solve the mystery of the painting, and I liked how the history fit into the larger picture. I did find the ending to be a bit convenient, but even that was explained in a reasonable (if somewhat implausible) manner.

In the end, a highly enjoyable book.

April 14, 2014

The Shadowhand Covenant

by Brian Farrey
First sentence: "It was exactly the funeral Nanni always wanted."
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: The Vengekeep Prophecies
Content: There's some intense action-related moments, and a small amount of violence, but nothing else. It's perfectly happy in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore.

When we last left our fair Grimjinx family, they were trying to leave behind thieving. Jaxter was off to the Dowager's estate to become apprentice to her, and the rest of the family was becoming (mostly) clean. Six months later, things aren't exactly happy. Jaxter and the Dowager are fighting and he's seriously considering giving up the internship altogether. So, when he heads back for Nanni's "funeral" (it's Par-Goblin custom to throw a funeral when a thief retires), he's pretty much sure that he's going to try and find another line of work.

But then, he, his Ma and Da get summoned by the Shadowhand, a super-secret organization of thieves. Someone's making them disappear. And it seems to be tied up with valuable relics that were stolen from the High Laird. And the Sarosans -- a group of gypsy-like people who are against magic and the Palatinate, the group of mages who seem to be grabbing too much power.

Of course, Jaxter gets involved (though not because he wants to; his hand is kind of forced), and he uses his knowledge of plants and powers of deduction to help him -- and his friends -- out.

Much of what I loved about the first book in this series is back: I adore the Grimjinxes as a family. They're fantastic. It's not very often that you have amazing parents in middle grade, but Ma and Da are them. Sure, Farrey has to find a way to separate Jaxter from them so he can have adventures. But they're so supportive and just plain good people (thieving aside, of course). And I still love how bookish Jaxter is. He's not athletic, and he's terrible at magic, but somehow he makes his book knowledge work for him.

I also liked the action in this one; Farrey has a good sense of action sequences, and there were a couple of moments when I was on the edge of my seat, wondering what's going to happen next.

And Farrey does a series right: each of these books have their own plot, wrapping it up by the final pages, while having a slower over-arcing plot weave them together. The writing's smart, the characters fun. It's fantastic.

April 13, 2014

State of the TBR Pile: April 2014

I was thinking that my TBR pile looked a lot like last month's. But then I checked (one of the great side benefits of doing this), and nope. I actually have rotated out quite a few books for this month. We'll see how many of these I get to, though. I keep getting sidetracked with awesome, like Laini Taylor's Dreams of Gods and Monsters, which I'm in the middle of right now.

As for the rest of the pile:
Wanderville, by Wendy McClure (Because of the Kansas connection.)
Under Magnolia, by Frances Mayes (I meant to read this before it came out. Still. I liked some of her other books.)
The Geography of You and Me, by Jennifer E. Smith (Because I'm in the mood for romance.)
Lifesaving Lessons, by Linda Greenlaw (Because I'm going to an author event with her. I probably should read it first...)
Half Bad, by Sally Green (Really, really, really out to get to this one.()
The World's Strongest Librarian, by (For my in person book gro)
All These Things I've Done, by Gabrielle Zevin (Because I've been meaning to for years.)
The Shadow Throne, by Jennifer E. Nelson (The last in one of my favorite series.)
Not pictured: Cruel Beauty, by Rosamund Hodge (YACker's book this month. It's waiting for me at the library.)

What's on your reading pile this month?

April 12, 2014

Killing Jesus

by Bill O' Reilly and Martin Dugard
First sentence: "The child with thirty-six years to live is being hunted."
Content: It's "history" (or at least vaguely historical) so there's some talk about sex, and it's violent. But I suppose anyone who wants to read it, no matter how old, will. (I also suppose, given what he's done in the past, O'Reilly will make a kids' version of this.)

I am not a Bill O'Reilly fan (at. all.), and that may have influenced how I thought about this. I should probably also say that I'm coming at this from a curiosity about the history surrounding Jesus, but an extreme lack of knowledge. I do know some, after reading Zealot, but I'm no Biblical scholar. In that way, I'm like most of O'Reilly's readers.

But I just couldn't deal with this book.

It wasn't the subject matter: I'm pretty familiar with the life of Jesus, and even if I'm not a Biblical scholar, I do know about the history, both the Biblical version as well as the scholarly version. And I picked this up because right now I'm interested in learning the life of Jesus. But there was no scholarly information to be had. While this followed the life of Jesus, and brushed with history, it lacked the scholarship. There were no source notes for the chapters (there were some source recommendations, but nothing cited), and the footnotes were barely explanations of Hebrew terms. That, combined with their use of B. C. and A. D. (instead of the more scholarly BCE and CE) served to make me distrust what the authors were writing.

Which brings me to my second critique: the book was written in the present tense. Perhaps they meant to do this to lend a sense of immediacy to the history, but all it did was tick me off. But sentences like "The Son of God thinks himself immortal." and "'You brood of vipers,' John screams at the Temple priests who have come to the river to question him. and "But nothing matters more than silencing Jesus." just made me cringe. It's bad writing. It's presuming an authority that doesn't exist. And it's just lame.

So, about halfway though I'd had enough, and bailed on it.

I'm still interested in the life of Jesus, and there are other books out there still left to read.  Hopefully, they'll be better.

April 11, 2014

Slated

by Teri Terry
First sentence: "I run."
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It's a pretty intense book, and I think the plot would be a bit difficult for younger readers to understand. But there's nothing "objectionable" it. It's in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Kyla has no memory beyond the past six months she's been in the hospital in London. See, she's been Slated by the government: a process done to criminals and terrorists to remove their memories. It's most effective the younger you are -- Kyla is only 16 -- and after the process, they tie your consciousness to a device called a Levo, which monitors your endorphin levels. If you get too low, you black out. And die. Obviously, it's supposed to reform the people who have it done, make them happy, productive members of society.

Except it didn't quite work on Kyla.

While she doesn't have any memories of her former life, she has nightmares. And she's not as compliant as she should be. And so, back with her "Mom" and "Dad" in their small village outside of London, she starts noticing things. Noticing things which leads to questions. And we all know that in books like this, questions are never good.

This is a much less futuristic dystopian fantasy than most, and that's one of the things, I think, that make it stand out. (The other being that it's set in London. It's nice to know that Big Brother is happening over there, too!) Sure, it's set in the future -- roughly 30 or 40 years -- but there's a lot that ties it to contemporary culture. The anti-terrorism movement, which leads to a really broad definition of "terrorist". A government that seeks to control their population. The other thing that made this one unique for me is that Kyla wasn't (for this book, at least; it might change) a lynchpin on which the Revolution of the Evil Government resides. She's a girl who's lost her memory but retained her consciousness. And it's not until her friends start disappearing that she feels she needs to take action.

That lack of action is also a downside. I'm hoping that this is mostly just a world-building book, and that there's more going on in the next one. While I did find the situations Terry put her character in fascinating, by the end of the book, there was more unanswered questions then there were answered ones. Additionally, I think the love interest was a bit forced; there was no need for her friendship to end up as a romance, and because of that, there was no underlying chemistry between the two of them.

That said, it was unique enough to hold my attention, I am curious to see where the next book goes.