Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The State of the Stacks

Who likes to know what other people are reading? I do! Here's a look at what's currently stacked next to my bed.

Here's a new situation - I am currently in the middle of 5 - that's right, FIVE - books. It's almost unheard of for me to be reading this much at once, but somehow here I am. I have one fiction, one audiobook, one nonfiction, one book of essays, and one that I'm reading on my phone. I'm not even sure how this happened exactly - I'm always reading a novel at any given time, and supplementing that with some nonfiction isn't that unusual. The book of essays kinda slipped in because I'm interested in starting to read more shorter works, especially for times when I only have 20 minutes or so and don't want to start digging in to a longer work. The audiobook is for my commute, and housework, and those moments. And then I recently discovered that I can read a book on my phone while my kids are in the room, and for some reason they don't mob me like they do when they see me with a book in my hands. And there you go - suddenly I've got 5 things going at once. We'll see how long I can keep this up.

The Dinner by Herman Koch - I've just started this one, so don't have a real feel for it yet, but the blurb says it "reveals the dark side of genteel society", so I'm expecting some surprises.

A History of God by Karen Armstrong - this is completely fascinating to me, but also quite dense, so it's a bit slow going. I love nonfiction like this, and almost always end up underlining and/or highlighting a huge portion of the book.

The Best American Essays - .....okay, my copy is upstairs, so I don't actually know which year this volume is from. But I'm about 5 essays in, and it's a great collection. I've been a bit obsessed with collecting these over the past couple of years, so I decided it's about time I actually start reading them.

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler, narrated by Kristine Hvam - I noticed this was by the author of the Lemony Snickett novels, but it was clearly not of the same genre, so I was interested. It's definitely YA, but so far entertaining.

Finding Colin Firth by Mia March - I was drawn to this novel because really, who DOESN'T love Colin Firth. I expected a light, breezy read, and am actually finding it to have a surprising amount of substance. This has been a delight so far.

So there you have it - what's been keeping me busy lately. What books are in YOUR stack?

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Sunday Shorts

Forever Odd by Dean Koontz
published 2007
352 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

We're all a little odd beneath the surface. He's the most unlikely hero you'll ever meet — an ordinary guy with a modest job you might never look at twice. But there's so much more to any of us than meets the eye — and that goes triple for Odd Thomas. For Odd lives always between two worlds in the small desert town of Pico Mundo, where the heroic and the harrowing are everyday events. Odd never asked to communicate with the dead — it's something that just happened. But as the unofficial goodwill ambassador between our world and theirs, he's got a duty to do the right thing. That's the way Odd sees it and that's why he's won hearts on both sides of the divide between life and death.

A childhood friend of Odd's has disappeared. The worst is feared. But as Odd applies his unique talents to the task of finding the missing person, he discovers something worse than a dead body, encounters an enemy of exceptional cunning, and spirals into a vortex of terror. Once again Odd will stand against our worst fears. Around him will gather new allies and old, some living and some not. For in the battle to come, there can be no innocent bystanders, and every sacrifice can tip the balance between despair and hope.

My thoughts -

I absolutely loved the first book in this series, even while I was SO INCREDIBLY MAD about the ending. I wasn't quite as crazy about the second installment - because I was missing my favorite character from the first novel (still mad), and because it seemed mostly like one long, drawn out, extended, never-ending, page after page after page of a chase scene, which is generally my least favorite part of any book or movie. I do still think Odd is a great character, and will continue with the series - this one just wasn't that great for me.

Finished - 7/20/13
Source - loan from my mom AND ebook from my sister - and yes, I used both copies!
MPAA rating - PG-13 for violence and scary stuff
My rating - 6/10

Kiss of Steel by Bec McMaster
published 9/31/12
439 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

Most people avoid the dreaded Whitechapel district. For Honoria Todd, it's the last safe haven. But at what price?

Blade is known as the master of the rookeries—no one dares cross him. It's been said he faced down the Echelon's army single–handedly, that ever since being infected by the blood–craving he's been quicker, stronger, and almost immortal.

When Honoria shows up at his door, his tenuous control comes close to snapping. She's so...innocent. He doesn't see her backbone of steel—or that she could be the very salvation he's been seeking.

My thoughts -

This novel is a REALLY long way from my normal reading habits, but life has been intense at my house lately, and it seemed like it would be nice to read something fairly uncomplicated. Because I don't read frequently in the genre, I have no idea if this is a good example of a paranormal steampunk romance - I just know that it was a lot of fun. The main characters are strong, the secondary characters (that I assume will also have novels written about them) were interesting, and McMaster creates an rather fascinating world to populate. I enjoyed this one enough that I'm considering finding the next in the series to continue on with these characters. If paranormal romance is something you enjoy, make sure you check this series out.

Finished - 7/24/13
Source - South side library
MPAA rating - R - it's a romance novel, folks
My rating - 7/10

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Book Thoughts - Royal Mistress by Anne Easter Smith

Royal Mistress by Anne Easter Smith
published 5/31/13
512 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

Jane Lambert, the quick-witted and alluring daughter of a silk merchant, is twenty-two and still unmarried. When Janes father finally finds her a match, shes married off to the dull, older silk merchant William Shore. Marriage doesnt stop Jane from flirtation, however, and when the kings chamberlain, Will Hastings, comes to her husbands shop, Will knows King Edward will find her irresistible.

Edward IV has everything: power, majestic bearing, superior military leadership, a sensual nature, and charisma. And with Jane as his mistress, he also finds true happiness. But when his hedonistic tendencies get in the way of being the strong leader England needs, his life, as well as those of Jane and Will Hastings, hangs in the balance. Jane must rely on her talents to survive as the new monarch, Richard III, bent on reforming his brothers licentious court, ascends the throne.

My thoughts -

Anne Easter Smith's historical novels are always a good bet when you are looking for a visit with some of England's slightly less well-known royals (read: not the Tudors). I've enjoyed her novels in the past, and was happy to dive into this one.

As before, Royal Mistress was well-written and well-researched. I am convinced Smith loves her Plantagenets - she writes about them with obvious affection, and even reviled Richard is sympathetic in her capable hands. Her novels are always a bit of a commitment - at just over 500 pages, this is not a story you will breeze through in an afternoon. Thankfully, Smith is good at pacing, and I never felt like the story dragged or the reading was a slog. The only part of the novel I thought was perhaps unnecessary was the Epilogue, which just seemed an unusual way to end such a story.

My biggest problem with the novel was that I just didn't quite buy Smith's vision of Jane. Often her attitudes and actions seemed more progressive and forward than I would expect for a woman of her time. Of course I don't know what the actual Jane Shore would have thought or felt - I just didn't quite buy the version Smith wanted to sell me.

I think fans of historical fiction in general will be happy with this novel - I've seen a bunch of glowing reviews on the internet. If you like this genre or this time period, I have a feeling this author will be for you - even though this wasn't my favorite of her work, I would still recommend her to someone looking for a dip in the Plantagenet pool.

Finished - 7/13/13
Source - review copy from publisher via Netgalley
MPAA rating - R for adult situations and violence
My rating - 6/10

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Dog Days of Summer Read-a-Thon

What is this, you ask??

"Summer. Sun. Sand. Thunderstorms and humidity. And books. Lots and lots of books.

I don’t know about you, but I miss those dog days of summer when I had nothing to do but stay outside, all day long, in my secret reading places, devouring books by the dozens and listening to horrible 80s music. Christopher Pike. John Saul. The Baby Sitter’s Club. Sweet Valley High. Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo. What? You didn’t have an odd French romance novel phase in YOUR teens? Huh....

...So, here, I humbly introduce The Dog Days of Summer Readathon. A whole weekend devoted to reading. No challenges. No prizes. No cheerleading (unless you feel so inclined). Just a weekend of reading fun, fluffy, nostalgic books."

Yep, I remember those days - I think I checked out 10 books a week from my local library, and had no trouble reading them all. I'm guessing I won't get through 10 books during this read-a-thon, but it sounds like fun to me. I've got a stack of teen angst classics - stuff I've never read, because I was too busy reading Les Miserables the summer before my 8th grade year. I could use a little fluff these days.

Want to join us? Sign up here, or just go ahead and read with no responsibilities, just like in the good old days.....

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Book Thoughts - The Human Division by John Scalzi

The Human Division by John Scalzi
published online January-April, 2013
published in print 5/14/13
432 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

Following the events of The Last Colony, John Scalzi tells the story of the fight to maintain the unity of the human race.

The people of Earth now know that the human Colonial Union has kept them ignorant of the dangerous universe around them. For generations the CU had defended humanity against hostile aliens, deliberately keeping Earth an ignorant backwater and a source of military recruits. Now the CU's secrets are known to all. Other alien races have come on the scene and formed a new alliance — an alliance against the Colonial Union. And they've invited the people of Earth to join them. For a shaken and betrayed Earth, the choice isn't obvious or easy.

Against such possibilities, managing the survival of the Colonial Union won't be easy, either. It will take diplomatic finesse, political cunning… and a brilliant “B Team,” centered on the resourceful Lieutenant Harry Wilson, that can be deployed to deal with the unpredictable and unexpected things the universe throws at you when you're struggling to preserve the unity of the human race.

Being published online from January to April 2013 as a three-month digital serial, The Human Division will appear as a full-length novel of the Old Man's War universe, plus — for the first time in print — the first tale of Lieutenant Harry Wilson, and a coda that wasn't part of the digital serialization.

My thoughts -

I should preface this review by saying that I am a fan of John Scalzi. I enjoy and respect his writing across the board, both fiction and nonfiction, in both formal published work and informally on his blog. If this post becomes a bit gush-y, just keep that in mind.

I've been eagerly anticipating Scalzi's return to his Old Man's War Universe, and was especially intrigued when I learned of the unique method he'd chosen for publishing this story. I decided to wait and read The Human Division as a complete work, and so the anticipation was (if possible) even greater. Then my awesome sis got me an AUTOGRAPHED copy, and my excitement was complete.

I'm happy to report the story lived up to my high expectations. Science fiction often doesn't click with my reading sensibilities for some reason, but Scalzi always manages to find a way to draw me in. It's partly his sense of humor - he thinks up such bizarrely hilarious situations, and then somehow makes them seem plausible (like having a carnivorous plant "eat" a dog, who then had to have its heart stopped and re-started).  But mostly it's his fantastic characters. Harry Wilson is sarcastic and bizarrely brilliant; Hart Schmidt is earnest and idealistic; Ambassador Abumwe is prickly and tough, but by the end of the novel you have to admit she's one of your favorites. Scalzi develops relationships so perfectly, and it's his relationships that make his novels so rich and rewarding.

The Human Division ends with many of its questions unanswered - presumably to be picked up in season 2, which has been confirmed. (Yay!) It might seem odd referring to a book as a "season", but in many ways that is very much what the experience of this novel was. Each "episode" felt completely contained in itself, and occasionally it seemed unclear how a certain chapter would fit into the greater whole. But by the end, the loose threads draw together, and the "season" feels complete. I mentioned that I chose to wait and read the book as a whole - while I certainly enjoyed the experience, I think for the next season I will read each episode as it is released. It's unique and exciting to have an author willing to experiment like this, and I'm looking forward to seeing where the story takes us next.

I think Scalzi's Old Man's War series is a great way to dip into sci-fi if you aren't sure of the genre - his work is engaging and highly entertaining, and I think almost everyone will find something to enjoy. I highly recommend this fantastic series.

Finished - 7/7/13
Source - my shelves via my sister - thank you!
MPAA rating - R for violence and adult situations
My rating - 8/10

Sunday, July 14, 2013

What's Making Me Happy This Week

(shamelessly stolen from NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, which also makes me happy each week.)

THIS is hilarious. Note - if you have NOT read/watched Game of Thrones but plan to, you should probably NOT watch this video. If you are already a fan, however, I'm pretty sure this will make you laugh.

Have you heard of the Humble Bundle?  No? Well, here's the explanation, straight from their site -

Ten sweet literary works. Humble eBook Bundle 2 features ten novel works of prose from respected authors and artists. Name your price for Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, Spin by Robert Charles Wilson, and Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold. Customers who beat the average price will also get The Last Unicorn: Deluxe Edition by Peter Beagle, Just a Geek by Wil Wheaton, xkcd: volume 0 by Randall Munroe, Signal to Noise by Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean, The Poison Eaters and Other Stories by Holly Black, and Machine of Death edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, & David Malki.

Pay what you want. Separately, this anthology of literary greatness would typically cost around $115. But we’re letting you set the price!

Compatible with computers and mobile devices. These books are available in multiple formats including PDF, MOBI, and ePub so they work great on your computer, eBook readers, and a wide array of mobile devices! Please note that this is the digital debut for some of these great titles, and if you’re having any viewing or usability issues, please let us know!

Support charities and authors. Choose how your purchase is divided: between the authors, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Child’s Play Charity, or the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. And if you like this promotion, a tip to Humble Bundle would be greatly appreciated!

I just think this is one of the coolest ideas around. DRM-free ebooks, with the money going directly to the authors, and to some great charities. Even if you've read one or two of the titles (I have), you still can't beat this incredible deal. Humble Bundle does weekly gaming bundles, which are of more interest to my husband - this is the second ebook Bundle they've offered, and both have been a great deal. Be aware - it's only available until Tuesday, July 16, so check it out!

What's making YOU happy this week? I'd love to hear about it!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Book Thoughts - The Kings and Queens of Roam by Daniel Wallace

The Kings and Queens of Roam by Daniel Wallace
published 5/7/13
288 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

Helen and Rachel McCallister, who live in a town called Roam, are as different as sisters can be: Helen, older, bitter, and conniving; Rachel, beautiful, na├»ve — and blind. When their parents die suddenly, Rachel has to rely on Helen for everything, but Helen embraces her role in all the wrong ways, convincing Rachel that the world is a dark and dangerous place she couldn't possibly survive on her own... or so Helen believes, until Rachel makes a surprising choice that turns both their worlds upside down.

My thoughts -

I predict we will be reading Daniel Wallace's stories for years and years to come. There is a classic universality to his work - it could be anyplace, any time, it's characters anyone. Wallace writes modern-day fables, and I think his work has the staying power of those well-worn, told and re-told stories that always seem familiar and yet somehow manage to surprise us.

This is a melancholy and beautiful story, with characters designed to break your heart. It almost seems as though Wallace started with a question - why do we have to hurt the ones we love? - and then wrote this novel as his answer. This is not the type of story that has a happy ending, and readers will be left feeling each and every moment of Rachel and Helen's poignant last scene.

Wallace is the master of the one, perfect sentence - his writing as a whole is quite good, but he sprinkles his novel with these single lines that completely evoke what he wishes to convey in that moment.

"Her eyes showed her the dark mystery-forest where we get lost in our dreams."

"It was easier for them to pretend she was invisible than it was to pretend she was pretty."

"There is no greater grief than that of a man with a broken heart who only just learned he had a heart at all."

The Kings and Queens of Roam is a somber but immensely rewarding read - do yourself a favor and fall into this world. You will not soon forget it.

Finished - 6/29/13
Source - review copy from publisher via Netgalley - thank you!
MPAA rating - PG-13 for intense adult situations
My rating - 9/10

Sunday, July 7, 2013

What's Making Me Happy This Week

(Shamelessly stolen from NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, which also makes me happy each week.)

Have you checked out Book Riot? Great website, interesting articles, and I am currently obsessed with the BookRiot podcast.  I enjoy the conversation, I enjoy the topics, and I love the weekly Birthday time. Check it out!

So have you heard about BookTubing? It's like blogging, but on YouTube. Apparently there's a whole community, and I LOVE it. Here's a quick intro, from one of my favorite bloggers. I haven't been brave enough to post my own yet, but I'm sure enjoying digging in to this fun new way to talk about books.

Look, look! I have stuff growing in my garden!! Since this picture, I've had a BUNCH of tomatoes pop out, and some teeny tiny baby cucumbers. This is so much fun. Next year I'm going to figure out how to keep the critters out.

What's making YOU happy this week? Let me know in the comments - we can all be happy together.

Thursday, July 4, 2013


Happy Fourth of July from my two favorite sparklers! (Thanks to my brilliant family members for the inspiration.)

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Book Thoughts - The First Gardener by Denise Hildreth Jones

The First Gardener by Denise Hildreth Jones
published 2011
419 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

Jeremiah Williams has been tending the gardens of the Tennessee governor's mansion for over twenty-five years. And like most first families who have come and gone, this one has stolen his heart. Mackenzie and her husband, Governor Gray London, have struggled for ten years to have a child and are now enjoying a sweet season of life--anticipating the coming reelection and sending their precious daughter, Maddie, off to kindergarten--when a tragedy tears their world apart. As the entire state mourns, Mackenzie falls into a grief that threatens to swallow her whole. Though his heart is also broken, Jeremiah realizes that his gift of gardening is about far more than pulling weeds and planting flowers. It's about tending hearts as well. As he uses the tools that have been placed in his hands, he gently begins to cultivate the hard soil of Mackenzie's heart, hoping to help her realize what it took him years to discover. A Southern tale of loss, love, and living, The First Gardner reminds us that all of life is a gift, but our heart is the most valuable gift of all

My thoughts-

Oh, this was just a lovely book. From the very start, as the author sets the stage in Jeremiah's voice, I fell in love with this wise old man and the gardens and family he tends. As I grew to know more and more about Mack and Gray, I quickly found a connection with them, and ached with their grief when tragedy struck. Jones' cast of characters is warm and full of life, and while some of the secondary characters seemed a little one-dimensional, her main players are satisfyingly rounded, with faults and graces in equal measure.

This wasn't always an easy book to read, however. The tragedy that strikes Mack and Gray is one I always find difficult to read about, and Jones gives her readers the task of experiencing that tragedy fully with Mackenzie. It was often painful, but never felt maudlin, and I thought the author did an excellent job of writing such a heart-wrenching subject.

One of the problems I often have with Christian fiction is the way faith is incorporated into the story - and by that, I mean it isn't. It seems the author has a specific "lesson" or "agenda" they wish to impart, and so at various time throughout the novel, their characters give little mini-sermons about whatever topic the author has chosen to write about. I find this irritating both from a reader's perspective - why must you bring the story to a halt just to throw that in? - and from a Christian perspective - do you really think I'm dense enough that you have to literally spoon-feed me your views on faith? I was impressed with the way Jones wove the faith elements of her story into the narrative. While it is certainly a novel with things to say about trust and forgiveness and relying on God, those elements seemed to spring organically from the flow of the story - they seemed to be the things these characters would naturally say. I think if more Christian fiction authors would be able to write like this, their books would find a much wider audience.

I enjoyed this novel very much. I thought it was a sensitive and realistic look at the way a family would cope with a great tragedy, and in the end it left me feeling hopeful and refreshed. If you are on the fence about Christian fiction, I would start with this title. Definitely recommended.

Finished - 5/23/13
Source - South side library
MPAA rating - PG for some scary events
My rating - 9/10