Thursday, October 31, 2013

Book Thoughts - Fiesta of Smoke by Suzan Still

Fiesta of Smoke by Suzan Still
published 3/5/13
524 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

Against a backdrop of rebellion and intrigue, love between Javier CarteƱa, commander of insurgent Mexican forces, and Calypso Searcy, an American novelist at the pinnacle of her career, sizzles with passion across a broad sweep of history. Encompassing time from the Conquest of the 1500s to the present, the story races across space as well, from the forests of Chiapas to the city of Paris. There, an international investigative reporter named Hill picks up the swiftly vanishing trail of Calypso’s disappearance, and unwittingly becomes involved in one of the great dramas of the twentieth century and one of the great love stories of any age.

My thoughts -

Fiesta of Smoke is an ambitious novel, full of life and passion. From the very beginning, Suzan Still's love of Mexico and its people is evident, and at the conclusion of the novel her readers are left feeling the same deep respect and admiration for this land and its inhabitants.

Because the novel covers such a long period of time, there are definitely places that, at times, felt a little slower than others. Still wants her readers to understand the history behind the conflicts in Mexico, and sometimes relating that history did impede somewhat on the momentum of the novel. That said, I can say honestly that I became quite engrossed in the history of this country. I have not read very widely about this part of the world, and Still's novel makes me want to change that.

While the novel has three main characters, I felt that Javier was the heart and soul of her novel. The book just felt more alive when he was on the page. He was abrasive and abrupt, full of pride and anger, and completely captivating. It was interesting for me to realize that Calypso, who was a strong character in herself, was not the driving force of the novel for me. While I was certainly intrigued by the motivations behind her actions, it was Javier that truly compelled me to keep reading.

There were certainly some parts of the novel that felt a bit slow, but overall I was quite entertained throughout the whole (lengthy) book. I found it to be a fascinating look at a period and a conflict I knew very little about. I would definitely recommend this novel to readers interested in this area of the world, or who just want an engrossing and well-written work of fiction.

Finished - 10/28/31
Source - review copy from publisher via TLC Book Tours - thank you!
MPAA rating - R - this is a novel about war, and is not shy in its depictions of violence
My rating - 7/10

If you are interested in other thoughts about the novel, check out these stops on its book tour -

Monday, October 14th: Buried in Print
Tuesday, October 15th: …the bookworm …
Thursday, October 17th: It’s All About Books
Monday, October 21st: Suko’s Notebook
Tuesday, October 22nd: Read. Write. Repeat.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Book Thoughts - The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon
published 8/20/13
480 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

It is the year 2059. Several major world cities are under the control of a security force called Scion. Paige Mahoney works in the criminal underworld of Scion London, part of a secret cell known as the Seven Seals. The work she does is unusual: scouting for information by breaking into others minds. Paige is a dreamwalker, a rare kind of clairvoyant, and in this world, the voyants commit treason simply by breathing.

But when Paige is captured and arrested, she encounters a power more sinister even than Scion. The voyant prison is a separate city — Oxford, erased from the map two centuries ago and now controlled by a powerful, otherworldly race. These creatures, the Rephaim, value the voyants highly — as soldiers in their army.

Paige is assigned to a Rephaite keeper, Warden, who will be in charge of her care and training. He is her master. Her natural enemy. But if she wants to regain her freedom, Paige will have to learn something of his mind and his own mysterious motives.

My thoughts -

One of my favorite things in the reading life is finding a new series to sink my teeth into. I enjoy stand-alone novels, but immersing myself in the world of a series is like finding a new family to fall in love with. I seem to connect especially well with fantasy series, and I'm very excited about what Samantha Shannon has in store for us.

The Bone Season is the first in a projected seven-part series, and it certainly has enough intrigue and depth to fill seven novels. Shannon's world is complex and layered, with so much detail that at times it's hard to keep everything straight. There were moments where the volume of information seemed a bit overwhelming, and I would hope as Shannon continues to grow as an author that she will find ways to incorporate that more smoothly into the narrative.

In creating her heroine, however, the author makes not a single misstep. Paige is strong and feisty, prickly and aloof, vulnerable and desperate. She is young and makes a young person's mistakes, and watching her grow as the novels progress is going to be a pleasure. She has so much to learn and so much to overcome, and I can't wait to see how she will win her battles.

While not perfect, I found The Bone Season to be a compelling debut novel. I was thoroughly entertained from start to finish, and I am excited to read Shannon's next work. Recommended for fantasy lovers.

Finished - 10/1/13
Source - review copy from publisher via Netgalley - thank you!
MPAA rating - R for violence and language
My rating - 8/10

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Book Thoughts - Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal

Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal
published 1/31/13
336 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

Mary Robinette Kowal stunned readers with her charming first novel Shades of Milk and Honey, a loving tribute to the works of Jane Austen in a world where magic is an everyday occurrence. This magic comes in the form of glamour, which allows talented users to form practically any illusion they can imagine. Shades debuted to great acclaim and left readers eagerly awaiting its sequel. Glamour in Glass follows the lives of beloved main characters Jane and Vincent, with a much deeper vein of drama and intrigue.

In the tumultuous months after Napoleon abdicates his throne, Jane and Vincent go to Belgium for their honeymoon. While there, the deposed emperor escapes his exile in Elba, throwing the continent into turmoil. With no easy way back to England, Jane and Vincent's concerns turn from enjoying their honeymoon…to escaping it.

Left with no outward salvation, Jane must persevere over her trying personal circumstances and use her glamour to rescue her husband from prison…and hopefully prevent her newly built marriage from getting stranded on the shoals of another country's war.

My thoughts -

This certainly felt like a more mature book. Kowal gives readers a glimpse into a conversation that sparked the core of this novel, and I think in many ways this book shows how she is settling into and becoming comfortable with the world she has created.

While the first novel was very much lighthearted fun, this second book tackles some fairly serious issues, and doesn't give readers a completely rosy, fairy tale ending. I think Kowal gives readers a good deal more substance in this second novel, and while it took me longer to get into the meat of the tale, it also offered more satisfaction at its conclusion.

I think Jane and Vincent are a great literary couple, and their relationship feels authentic and believable. I am still enchanted with Kowal's use of glamour, and the interesting and sometimes perilous situations it can create.

I think this is a great series, and I hope it continues for many more novels to come.

Finished - 9/21/13
Source - South Side library
MPAA rating - PG-13 for violence and use of magic
My rating - 7/10

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Sunday Shorts

Deeply Odd by Dean Koontz
published 5/28/13
352 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

How do you make sure a crime that hasn’t happened yet, never does? That’s the critical question facing Odd Thomas, the young man with a unique ability to commune with restless spirits and help them find justice and peace. But this time, it’s the living who desperately need Odd on their side. Three helpless innocents will be brutally executed unless Odd can intervene in time. Who the potential victims are and where they can be found remain a mystery. The only thing Odd knows for sure is who the killer will be: the homicidal stranger who tried to shoot him dead in a small-town parking lot.

With the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock riding shotgun and a network of unlikely allies providing help along the way, Odd embarks on an interstate game of cat and mouse with his sinister quarry. He will soon learn that his adversary possesses abilities that may surpass his own and operates in service to infinitely more formidable foes, with murder a mere prelude to much deeper designs. Traveling across a landscape haunted by portents of impending catastrophe, Odd will do what he must and go where his path leads him, drawing ever closer to the dark heart of his long journey — and, perhaps, to the bright light beyond.

My thoughts -

It's so much fun to see the greater story developing - to start piecing together the place I think the author is ultimately going with this series. Once again, the actual mystery of the book - while certainly nail-biting - was not what I enjoyed most. Koontz creates such a delightful cast of characters, and I love watching them interact and trying to figure out what each player means in the grand scheme. This series is so much better than I expected it to be!

Finished - 9/11/13
Source - South side library
MPAA rating - R for scary violence
My rating - 8/10

The Selection by Kiera Cass
published 2012
352 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

For thirty-five girls, the Selection is the chance of a lifetime. The opportunity to escape the life laid out for them since birth. To be swept up in a world of glittering gowns and priceless jewels. To live in a palace and compete for the heart of gorgeous Prince Maxon.

But for America Singer, being Selected is a nightmare. It means turning her back on her secret love with Aspen, who is a caste below her. Leaving her home to enter a fierce competition for a crown she doesn't want. Living in a palace that is constantly threatened by violent rebel attacks.

Then America meets Prince Maxon. Gradually, she starts to question all the plans she's made for herself; and realizes that the life she's always dreamed of may not compare to a future she never imagined.

My thoughts -

Basically just imagine Prince Harry being the next Bachelor. That's pretty much the gist of this book, and while it sounds silly, I enjoyed it a lot. America is a fun and feisty heroine, and I'm enjoying her journey of discovery into worlds she hasn't known. I am definitely continuing with this series.

Finished - 9/18/13
Source - South Side library
MPAA rating - PG-13 for violence and some more sensitive situations
My rating - 8/10

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Book Thoughts - Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
published 2010
304 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

Shades of Milk and Honey is an intimate portrait of Jane Ellsworth, a woman ahead of her time in a world where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality. But despite the prevalence of magic in everyday life, other aspects of Dorchester's society are not that different: Jane and her sister Melody's lives still revolve around vying for the attentions of eligible men.

Jane resists this fate, and rightly so: while her skill with glamour is remarkable, it is her sister who is fair of face, and therefore wins the lions share of the attention. At the ripe old age of twenty-eight, Jane has resigned herself to being invisible forever. But when her familys honor is threatened, she finds that she must push her skills to the limit in order to set things right--and, in the process, accidentally wanders into a love story of her own.

My thoughts -

Holy cow was this book fun. I'd seen several positive reviews, so I expected to enjoy it, but I found myself  tearing through this novel in 2 days. I thought the characters, the setting, and the ingenious use of magic were absolutely perfect.

 I've seen SOMAH referred to as "Jane Austen with magic", and while I don't think Kowal's work has quite the intensity or cultural insight as Austen, she certainly loves Austen's work, and that is evident throughout this charming book. Her heroine - Jane - could certainly hold her own with many of Austen's spirited creations, and the nods to her predecessor's ideas and wit are sprinkled throughout.

In adding magic, however, Kowal imbues her story with a fresh and engaging new element, and that was what truly drew me in. Her world is both familiar and enchantingly unique, and I loved learning about the ways Jane and others in her society use glamour to influence their lives. Kowal elevates magic to an art, and gives her reader many interesting discussions about the nature of art in people's lives.

The ONLY negative, for me, was a scene that seemed strangely rushed and chaotic toward the end of the novel. I'm still not sure exactly what happened, which is a bit frustrating in a novel that otherwise seemed perfectly paced. While it is a small quibble, I hope to see this remedied in future novels in the series.

I highly recommend this novel - it will appeal to many across a bunch of different reading genres. Shades of Milk and Honey is a fun and fresh take on the comedy of manners, and it's magic might even captivate you!

Finished - 9/14/13
Source - South side library
MPAA rating - PG-13 for some violence and adult situations
My rating - 9/10

Sunday, October 13, 2013

R.I.P. Challenge - Kids Edition!

Though I haven't been able to post much about it - whew! did this month get busy! - I have been participating in the annual R.I.P. Challenge, and reading some appropriately themed books for the season.

Without really making a conscious choice, I've also been finding some monster-themed books for my kids - so they've had a mini-R.I.P this month, too! They've been loving it, and we've been reading some really fun books.

 The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone and Michael Smollin
copyright 1971

Synopsis from publisher -

Is there a monster at the end of this book? Lovable Grover believes so and he will try anything to stop readers from turning the pages to find him. This bestselling Sesame Street book of all time is an exciting and original tale that children will read again and again.

My thoughts -

This one is a classic, and it's been a treat to re-visit. My kids actually figured out right away that Grover was the only monster in this book, but it didn't seem to lessen their excitement as we reached the end.

The Book that Eats People by John Perry
copyright 2009

Synopsis from publisher -

Legend has it there exists a book that eats people.

This is that book!

Many readers have been unable to escape its perilous pages.

But this isn't that book.

Yes it is!

This is simply a story about that book.

Really. I mean, how could a book eat people?

So if you're just dying to know the history of this literary monster, all you have to do is turn the page...

Don't do it!

My thoughts -

This book has great illustrations - lots of different "looks" to the pages that keep my kids interested. They've asked me to read this one again and again, and never seem to get tired of The Book that Eats People snapping shut on it's victims.

Frank was a Monster who Wanted to Dance by Keith Graves
copyright 2006

Synopsis from publisher -

Frank was a monster who wanted to dance. So he put on his hat, and his shoes made in France...and opened a jar and put ants in his pants! So begins this monstrously funny, deliciously disgusting, horrifyingly hilarious story of a monster who follows his dream. Keith Graves' wacky illustrations and laugh-out-loud text will tickle the funny bone and leave readers clamoring for an encore.

My thoughts -

This is by far the grossest of the books - in one scene, Frank dances so hard his head pops open and his brains fall out - but it hasn't seemed to bother the kids at all. They just think it's hilarious. They love the rhyming story, and like to get up and do a little dancing right along with Frank.

Monsters Eat Whiny Children by Bruce Eric Kaplan
copyright 2010

Synopsis from publisher -

Dad has warned Henry and Eve: If you whine too much, monsters will eat you. Henry and Eve don’t listen, of course. The only problem is, when the monster comes, he can’t find the right recipe for whiny children; and neither can his monster friends! A whiny child salad doesn’t work because there’s paprika in the dressing. A whiny child cake won’t do because the flour spills all over the floor. And whiny child burgers are out of the question because the grill is too hard to light up. Arguments and hilarity ensue. And just when our persnickety monsters decide on the perfect dish…the worst thing of all happens….

My thoughts -

Anyone recognize the author's name? Producer for Six Feet Under, writer for Seinfeld - his sense of humor works perfectly for me, and I'm happy to laugh along with my kids on this one. Sometimes you have to read the book for Mom - this is definitely one of those cases!

What fun, spooky kids books are YOU enjoying this season??

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Book Thoughts - Beyond the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

Beyond the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo
published 2/13/12
256 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

Annawadi is a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport, and as India starts to prosper, Annawadians are electric with hope. Abdul, a reflective and enterprising Muslim teenager, sees "a fortune beyond counting" in the recyclable garbage that richer people throw away. Asha, a woman of formidable wit and deep scars from a childhood in rural poverty, has identified an alternate route to the middle class: political corruption. With a little luck, her sensitive, beautiful daughter — Annawadi's "most-everything girl" — will soon become its first female college graduate. And even the poorest Annawadians, like Kalu, a fifteen-year-old scrap-metal thief, believe themselves inching closer to the good lives and good times they call "the full enjoy."

But then Abdul the garbage sorter is falsely accused in a shocking tragedy; terror and a global recession rock the city; and suppressed tensions over religion, caste, sex, power and economic envy turn brutal. As the tenderest individual hopes intersect with the greatest global truths, the true contours of a competitive age are revealed. And so, too, are the imaginations and courage of the people of Annawadi.

My thoughts -

In my continuing goal to read books that have won/were nominated for book awards, I picked up Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, which won both a National Book Award in 2013 and a PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award. It really sounded like just the kind of nonfiction that I really enjoy, and while it certainly was a compelling read, it didn't quite blow me away.

Boo traces a period of 3 years in the slum of Annawadi, in which fortunes and lives rise and fall. Several different points of view are utilized, and the somewhat surprising breadth of quality of life is displayed. There were a few times I felt like I wasn't really sure how much time had elapsed between events - Boo states in her author's note that she reported for 3-4 years, but in the narrative it seems that more time passes. I just didn't quite feel like I had a central, grounding point to keep myself straight in the story.

There were many things that surprised me about this story, and I feel like I learned a lot about a way of life that is completely a totally unimaginable to me. I was astonished by the responsibility that the children would take upon themselves for the survival of their families. I think the one thing I didn't feel that I expected was a sense of hope - just based on the events of the book, I can't imagine how the people who live in a place like Annawadi can ever, under their own strength, make a new life for themselves, and that was a hard thing to ponder.

I certainly think this is an interesting and informative piece of writing, but it didn't quite strike me as favorably as it seems to have many other readers. If you are interested in India, or in the lives of people working to better their lives, you will most likely fall in love with this book.

Finished - 9/8/13
Source - South side library
MPAA rating - PG-13 for startling, eye-opening situations
My rating - 6/10

Sunday, October 6, 2013

No reading for me today!!

I will be too busy celebrating these two cuties turning THREE!!

Hope your day is as fun as ours is going to be.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Book Thoughts - Harvest by Jim Crace

Harvest by Jim Crace
published 2/12/13
208 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

A remote English village wakes on the morning after harvest, looking forward to enjoying a hard-earned day of rest and feasting. But two mysterious columns of smoke mar the sky, raising alarm and suspicion.

The first column of smoke comes from the edge of the village land, sent as a signal by newcomers to announce their presence as per regional custom. The second smoke column is even more troubling: it comes from a blaze set in Master Kent's stables. Walter Thirsk, a relative outsider in the village, casts his eye on three local boys and blames their careless tomfoolery. The rest of the villagers, though, close ranks against the strangers rather than accuse one of their own. Two men and a woman are apprehended; their heads are shaved to mark their criminality; and the men are thrown into the stocks for a week. Justice has been served. Or has it?

Meanwhile, another newcomer has been spotted in the village sporting the finer clothes and fashionable beard of a townsman. Mr. Quill, as the villagers name him, observes them closely and takes careful notes about their land, apparently at Master Kent's behest. It is his presence more than any other that will threaten the village's entire way of life.

My thoughts -


So this is my second novel in the Great Book Awards Experiment of 2013, and this one definitely FELT like what I expected a novel that might win a prestigious award should. I'm struggling, however, because I can't decide if I actually liked it.

 I definitely respect the immense mastery of the English language that the author possesses - this novel is exquisitely written, and it was truly a pleasure to read these well crafted sentences. If this had not been a library book there would have been SO MUCH underlining going on - since it is, I had to resort to sticky notes, and then I ran out.

"I know I pushed my nose against a tree and was surprised by the ancient sweetness of the bark. I know I stood and studied ants, not guessing yet what antlike labors were awaiting me. I know I picked a flower for my cap. And Then I set my eyes on Cecily and saw a chance to build a future here. I wooed her by working at her elbow in her fields, attending to the hunger of her soil. My labor was an act of love. My unaccustomed muscles grew and ached for her. I had no choice." (p. 48)

While I loved the construction of the novel, the story itself seemed a bit simplistic. The threads of ideas I began to notice in the beginning of the book never quite seemed all to come together, and I was left feeling like I was hoping for a bit more. At the same time, however, I am still trying to dissect whether the author wanted this to be an Important Book, with a message to impart, or whether he was just trying to write a simple story about another time.

Whatever his intention, I'm still thinking about this book, and that certainly means something. If you are a fan of absolutely gorgeous writing, definitely give Harvest a read. If plot is more your thing, then you might want to take a pass.

Finished - 8/28/13
Source- South side library
MPAA rating - PG-13 for violence and adult situations
My rating - ???
10 for writing, 6 for story, so.......8/10

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Book Thoughts - Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
published 2012
468 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

As the summer of 2004 draws to a close, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are still hanging in there — longtime friends, bandmates, and co-regents of Brokeland Records, a kingdom of used vinyl located in the borderlands of Berkeley and Oakland. Their wives, Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, are the Berkeley Birth Partners, a pair of semi-legendary midwives who have welcomed more than a thousand newly minted citizens into the dented utopia at whose heart — half tavern, half temple — stands Brokeland.

When ex-NFL quarterback Gibson Goode, the fifth-richest black man in America, announces plans to build his latest Dogpile megastore on a nearby stretch of Telegraph Avenue, Nat and Archy fear it means certain doom for their vulnerable little enterprise. Meanwhile, Aviva and Gwen also find themselves caught up in a battle for their professional existence, one that tests the limits of their friendship. Adding another layer of complications to the couples' already tangled lives is the surprise appearance of Titus Joyner, the teenage son Archy has never acknowledged and the love of fifteen-year-old Julius Jaffe's life.

My thoughts -

It has been a bit of a challenge for me to write about this novel, because I am really of two minds about it. From a technical standpoint, it was easy to see how masterful Chabon's writing is. He is clearly a writer of great talent, and his craft was displayed to great effect in Telegraph Avenue. He uses metaphor liberally throughout - I know often I didn't fully understand the reference, so didn't quite "get" the idea. But it was easy to tell, even as I was reading, that this is a magnificently crafted book.

Unfortunately for me, that didn't make the reading of it a completely enjoyable experience. For much of the book, I felt bogged down in details, and almost as if I couldn't quite grasp the gist of the story. Characters come and go, and while they are all interesting, it is hard to figure out if they are important, or if they will ever even return to the narrative. It all just felt like a little too much - too many words, too many characters, too much going one. I had to think SO hard to keep up that I could never fully immerse myself in the story.

I've seen several comparisons to James Joyce, and I can certainly understand them. Now, it's not a stretch to say that I enjoyed Telegraph Avenue more than Ulysses - while it seemed, at times, frustrating and overwhelming, there was enough in the narrative and the wonderful characters that I truly wanted to finish the novel to see how everything turned out. But that sense of feeling like it was too much - like the novel was just a second away from getting the best of me - that was the same.

It's hard for me to decide if I should recommend this novel or not - I've seen a lot of professional reviewers rave about the book, so I know it certainly appeals to some readers. Personally, I found it to be an interesting intellectual exercise, but not necessarily an engaging read. I'm sure it will be right for many readers - I'm just not sure it was right for me.

Finished - 9/24/13
Source - review copy from publisher via TLC Book Tours - thank you!
MPAA rating - R for language and adult situations
My rating - hmmmm.
9/10 for craftsmanship
4/10 for
7/10 overall??

If you want to read more opinions on this novel, check out the TLC Book Tours schedule.