Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Review: The Man with the Glass Heart by Shelly Reuben

Title: The Man with the Glass Heart
Author: Shelly Reuben
Publication Date: December 1, 2012
Target Age Group: Adult
My Rating: 4 out of 5

Book Description (from Amazon)

Not since The Little Prince fell in love with a rose has a book captured the magic of a world where love longs for what it cannot have, recovers what it has lost, and the unimaginable flutters with luminescent wings out of crystal caves. Panache, an exuberant road gypsy, is on her way to the mountains. Benjamin Pencil, The Man With The Glass Heart, has no use for mountains. But their paths cross, their lives intertwine, and Benjamin follows her up, up, up, to where hills are smothered in poppies and a man can reach out and write his name in the sky. As they travel, they first encounter the beautiful but predatory Woman with the Breeding, a collector of hearts who tries to add Benjamin's exquisite heart to her pitiable hoard; the malicious Man who Laughs, who lives only to create fear and kill dreams; and unpredictably Panache's iconoclastic, unreliable, and utterly irresistible father. Papa plays his saxophone with the same wild abandon with which he lives his life, and cautions Panache that if the mountains are in a man, he will go there ... and that mountains are in the man with the glass heart. It is in those mountains that they meet the melodious laughing bird. Melody, with her irresistible song and aquamarine eyes, lures Benjamin to an Arabian Nights world where hypnotizing creatures dance and sing late into the night. At what peril does Benjamin Pencil follow the melodious laughing bird? To what end? Can real hearts be broken? Is a shattered heart the end of all love? Or can it be a new beginning?

My Review

This book was acquired from Book Expo America 2013. Many thanks to BEA and to the author for the opportunity to review it.

This book is toted as an adult fable.  And it's easy to see tons of symbolism in the story. But the story itself, before going into that symbolism, exists well enough on its own. Shelly Reuben has created a very vividly imagined story of a kind of fantasy world, with modern touches. 

The story has a very medieval feel to it, with characters traversing the landscape on foot, majestic mountain landscapes, and small towns that feel like something right out of J. R. Tolkien's works.  There is also magic involved. There is a character who is a collector of hearts, where the hearts are physically taken from their owners. There is also another character who appears and disappears like some type of magician and a harbinger of doom, as well as the Melodious Bird" which is almost human in its mannerisms. This is, of course, because these characters are symbols purposefully created by the author, but ignoring that, they give the story a fantasy element.

And yet there are characters, such as the main character Panache's father, who is an obviously modern musician who plays the saxophone. It is a testament to the skill of the author who successfully marries these modern touches with the old-school landscape to make it all work together.

On the surface, the story is about Panache, who wants nothing more than to explore the world around her like her gypsy father, who comes and goes as he pleases, playing his music with reckless abandon. Then she meets Benjamin Pencil, the Man with the Glass Heart, and for all intents and purposes, even though she doesn't know it at the time, she falls in love with him, with his innocence and genuine nature. The story is a journey that these two embark on together, where they come across many physical challenges and grow closer together, then apart, and ultimately... well, no spoilers, right? Lol.

But there is another layer to this story. Because this is really an allegory, where the different characters represent many of the trials and tribulations of the person (in this case, Benjamin Pencil) who starts off with an innocent and "good" heart. There are those who would seek to keep that heart for themselves, not to cherish it but to add to their "collection" of claimed hearts. Like trophy boyfriends/husbands, if you will. There is the perilous mountain climb Benjamin Pencil makes with his glass heart in his little wagon, representative of the cruel world out there that would do his heart harm... or not, depending on how well he protects his true nature. And so on. (I don't want to give away all the symbolism, after all. I do have my theories about the character of the Melodious Bird that I'd love to discuss with the author someday.)

Both of these aspects of the story are woven together to create a magical tale that I feel people can relate to if they wish to look below the surface. Or readers can just enjoy a magical story about a woman who falls in love with the impossible Man with the Glass Heart and how their relationship fares while traversing the fantastical and sometimes treacherous world in which they live, and how the two of them change in the process. Can Benjamin Pencil grow to be more daring even while still protecting his glass heart? Can Panache grow to let go of some of her own freedom to care for someone else? Can they both survive those who would do them ill will?

My recommendation? Read this story and find out for yourself! :-)

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Review: Watch the Sky by Kirsten Hubbard

Title: Watch the Sky
Author: Kirsten Hubbard
Publication Date: April 7, 2015
Target Age Group: MG
My Rating: 4 out of 5

Book Description (from inside cover)

Jory's stepfather, Caleb, says: Red leaves in the springtime. Pages torn from a library book. All the fish in an aquarium facing the same way. A cracked egg with twin yolks. Everywhere and anywhere. And because of them Jory's life is far from ordinary. He must follow a very specific set of rules: don't trust anyone outside the family, have your work boots at the ready just in case, and always, always watch out for the signs. The end is coming, and they must be prepared.

School is Jory's only escape from Caleb's tight grasp, and with the help of new friends Jory begins to explore a world beyond his family's farm. As Jory's friendships grow, Caleb notifies Jory's mother and siblings that the time has come for final preparations.

They begin and exhausting schedule, digging a mysterious tunnel in anticipation of the disaster. But as the hole gets deeper, so does the family's doubt about whether Caleb's prophesy is true. When the stark reality of his stepfather's plans becomes clear, Jory must choose between living his own life or following Caleb, shutting his eyes to the bright world he's just begun to see.

My Review

This book was acquired from Book Expo America 2015. Many thanks to BEA and to the author for the opportunity to review it.

This book was endlessly fascinating to read. The feeling I got while reading it was probably much similar to Jory's as the story progresses. Jory's family is digging a shelter to survive some coming catastrophe his stepfather insists is coming, and yet I felt much like Jory did - claustrophobic. Especially because, in contrast to what Caleb suggests is the best practice, to keep to themselves, not attract attention, and to trust no one, Jory begins to reach out to others and discovers that the rest of the world is not as scary as Caleb portrays it to be. Jory begins to LIVE for the first time in his life, and it makes his life at home (and my feelings as a reader) even more claustrophobic as the "end" that Caleb describes comes closer. 

This story is more like a psychological suspense/thriller than anything else, which I don't see often in MG fiction. It's not necessarily the crisis that's the main issue in this book, although it's the dark cloud that hangs over Jory's head that makes up part of the actual conflict. It took me a while to realize this: The theme of "Is it really worth living your life in fear and to be safe than it is to live your life to the fullest?" that's the main conflict in the story. It's the battle in Jory's brain - live in fear or live your life. The physical manifestation of the "live in fear and be safe" is Caleb, and on the other side are Jory's new school friends, who are the "live your life to the fullest" manifestations.

The wild card in the story is Jory's sister Kit, who I find most fascinating of all the characters in the story. She represents both sides of Jory's internal struggle. Her appearance is very mysterious. She appeared one day out of nowhere in the family pumpkin patch. Her very existence suggests that Caleb's views may be true - there are truly signs that warn of some coming disaster. And yet, Kit is different than everyone else in the family. She enjoys life to the fullest, even inside the artificial boundaries of Caleb's artificial world he's built around the family. She challenges Jory to see outside that world as well, and I'd venture that she's really the first catalyst that pushes Jory to realize there's a whole life out there to live outside his current life of fear and preparation. One of Caleb's warnings - to watch the sky for trouble - Kit takes and turns on its head. She makes Jory see the wonders in the sky, so that Jory both simultaneous fears AND is fascinated by them.

My recommendation: Excellent read. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Review: The Haunting of Sunshine Girl by Paige McKenzie

Title: The Haunting of Sunshine Girl
Author: Paige McKenzie, Nick Hagen, and Alyssa Sheinmel
Publication Date: March 24, 2015
Target Age Group: YA
My Rating: 5 out of 5

Book Description (from Amazon)

Shortly after her sixteenth birthday, Sunshine Griffith and her mother, Kat, move from sunny Austin, Texas, to the rain-drenched town of Ridgemont, Washington. Though Sunshine is adopted, she and her mother have always been close, sharing a special bond filled with laughter and inside jokes. But from the moment they arrive, Sunshine feels her world darken with an eeriness she cannot place. And even if Kat doesn't recognize it, Sunshine knows that something about their new house is just... creepy.

On their first night in Ridgemont, Sunshine is awakened by the sound of footsteps coming from above, followed by a child's ghostly laughter. In the days that follow, things just get more frightening. But Kat seems oblivious to the terror, insisting that Sunshine's imagination is getting the best of her. Determined to prove her mother wrong, Sunshine begins taking photographs, desperate to catch evidence of the supernatural presence. At her new school, Sunshine meets Nolan Porter, a cute - if slightly bookish - classmate. Nolan also has a passion for photography - and, more importantly, for ghosts. He offers to help Sunshine figure out exactly what's going on.

What they uncover is a story that's much bigger and runs deeper than they could have imagined. She can hardly believe it, but as the spirits haunting her house become stranger - and it becomes clear that Kat is in danger - Sunshine learns that everything she thought she knew about her past has been wrong.

My Review

This is a newly acquired book from Book Expo America 2015 book. Many thanks to BEA and to the authors for the opportunity to review it before its release.

First, before I get into the book review, I just wanted to say it was awesome meeting Paige McKenzie at BEA 2015 this year, not only because she's co-written an amazing story - with Alyssa Sheinmel and Nick Hagen - but she was probably the most enthusiastic new writer I've ever seen at BEA. I wish her loads more success in her career.

This book is yet another great, creepy story I've acquired at BEA this year. For that reason alone, I love this book.

At first glance, this book may seem like another run-of-the-mill ghost story. And on the surface, it is. Girl moves into a house, house is haunted, girl can see ghosts. Probably been done loads of times. Yet, it hasn't. This book seems to take these old tropes and create something new with it. A new mythology involving ghosts and their goings-on after they've left the land of the living. Paige McKenzie and company have created a bunch of rules for this particular ghost world, and they're pretty cool. They've also created a new mythology for the main character, Sunshine, and her ghostly powers that involve communicating with, and assisting, the dead.

One of the biggest stand-out features of this book is the use of water. Sunshine moves from sunny Austin, Texas, to the gloomy climate of Ridgemont, Washington, where it always seems to be raining. As events get stranger and more menacing for Sunshine in her new home, the water level in her life starts to figuratively, and literally, rise. Great symbolism, since water can be symbolic of death, or of formless things (i.e. ghosts). 

Water may also symbolize change, which is another recurring theme of the story. Sunshine's life is in the midst of change. Everything she knows about her life is turned on its head by the end of the story. She's suddenly unsure about her relationship with her mother, her surroundings, her history, and even who to trust around her, whether living or dead.

To me (and maybe I'm reading too much into this), this story also seems to be a great analogy of a child and a parent and how they can lose their way during a child's teenaged years. Kat, Sunshine's mother, begins to act strangely after they've moved into their new house, and yes, there's a supernatural element behind all of it, but it also illustrates how teenagers and their parents often seem to get disconnected. For that reason, this book is also a great coming-of-age type of story, in its own weird, spooky way. 

I could go on, but I'll let you readers see for yourselves how great this book is. Pick this one up, especially all you lovers of supernatural YA. You won't regret it!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Review: The Nest by Kenneth Oppel

Title: The Nest
Author: Kenneth Oppel
Publication Date: October 6, 2015
Target Age Group: YA
My Rating: 5 out of 5

Book Description (from Amazon)

Steve just wants to save his baby brother—but what will he lose in the bargain? This is a haunting gothic tale for fans of Coraline, from acclaimed author Kenneth Oppel (Silverwing, The Boundless) with illustrations from Caldecott Medalist Jon Klassen.

For some kids summer is a sun-soaked season of fun. But for Steve, it’s just another season of worries. Worries about his sick newborn baby brother who is fighting to survive, worries about his parents who are struggling to cope, even worries about the wasp’s nest looming ominously from the eaves. So when a mysterious wasp queen invades his dreams, offering to “fix” the baby, Steve thinks his prayers have been answered.

All he has to do is say “Yes.” But “yes” is a powerful word. It is also a dangerous one. And once it is uttered, can it be taken back?

Celebrated author Kenneth Oppel creates an eerie masterpiece in this compelling story that explores disability and diversity, fears and dreams, and what ultimately makes a family. Includes illustrations from celebrated artist Jon Klassen.

My Review

This is a newly acquired book from Book Expo America 2015 book. Many thanks to BEA and to Kenneth Oppel for the opportunity to review it before its release.

I have a weakness for really creepy books that crawl right into your mind and haunt it. This, dear readers, is just that type of book.

Steve's new baby brother is very sick, and all he wants is for him to get better. Not only because it's his brother, but for other selfish reasons. Steve is portrayed as a very real boy with real emotions concerning a very real problem. His parents are spending all their time with the baby and not enough on him. 

Then some very cool, unreal elements come into the story. "Angels" appear and say they can make the baby all better, and Steve agrees to let them help. Who wouldn't jump at that opportunity? The angels appeal to Steve, not only because they will help his baby brother, but also because they can help him as well. Steve's parents will be able to spend more time with him instead of worrying about the baby. And, oh by the way, they can make Steve better too, because he's a very anxious boy with OCD. He's "broken", like the baby, but the angels say they can fix him too.

At the same time all this is going on, there's a giant wasp nest growing outside Steve's house, and as it gets closer to the time the angels promise the baby will be all "fixed", the nest grows and grows. And the truth of what these angels have in mind grows more and more apparent, and frightening. 

Not only is this a really cool and creepy story, but there are a lot of very complex, philosophical questions addressed in this book concerning both physical and mental illnesses and how they should be handled. The book works on different levels for this reason. I guarantee both those philosophical questions and the creepiness will take up residence in your head by the end of the story.

I highly recommend reading this book.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Review: Call Me Amy by Marcia Strykowski

Title: Call Me Amy
Author: Marcia Strykowski
Publication Date: May 1, 2013
Target Age Group: Middle Grade
My Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5

Book Description (from Amazon)

For Amy Henderson, 1973 has been a lonely year of so many awkward moments she's actually lost count. Things turn around quickly when she assists in the rescue of an injured seal pup. To help save Pup, she forms an unlikely alliance with a questionable boy in a worn-out army jacket, as well as a peculiar older woman the kids in town refer to as "Old Coot."

Amy soon finds that people aren't always what they seem, as she nurtures Pup back to health with the help of her two new companions, Craig and Miss Cogshell. Unexpected detours occur as an ill-intentioned harbormaster hunts down Pup and a group of nosy popular girls set their affections on Craig.

As if these weren't obstacles enough, an even graver challenge presents itself soon thereafter, threatening the future of the entire town--and Amy's life as well.

My Review

This is a Book Expo America 2013 book. Many thanks!

This book tricked me. First, I wasn't sure if I'd even be interested in it based on its description. Anyone who knows me knows it's not my typical reading fare. Also, when I first started reading it, I found very common themes about the main character's sister who was the popular one and the one who the parents doted on while the main character was all but invisible. Also, there was lots of what I considered over the top description and dropped references to let the reader know what time period the story took place in. Craig didn't seem very developed, and neither did Miss Cogshell, although she was very vividly drawn.

And then something changed.

As the three characters came together in the midst of taking care of an injured seal pup, suddenly they all became alive in my mind. The interactions between the three of them caused each of them to open up to the others, and suddenly I began really caring about these characters. I learned each had a history of their own, that each had their own problems, and that each could help the others cope with theirs. By the end of the book, I was totally invested in all of them, especially during tragic events that I of course can't reveal (spoilers you know). 

For those people looking for an action-filled adventure, there's very little of that to be found in this book. For those that like a slow build, however, and a warm-hearted story, then this may be the right book for you. It turns out it was the right one for me as well.

I would definitely recommend this one.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Review: Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman

Title: Fortunately, the Milk
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publication Date: September 17, 2013
Target Age Group: Middle Grade
My Rating: 5 out of 5

Book Description (from back cover)

Jason When a father run out to buy milk for his childrens' breakfast cereal, the last thing he expects is to be abducted by aliens. He soon finds himself transported through time and space on an extraordinary adventure where the fate of the universe depends on him, a time-traveling Stegosaurus (in a balloon), and, fortunately, the milk.

This is quite possibly the most exciting adventure ever to be written about milk since Tolstoy's epic novel War and Milk. Also it has aliens, pirates, dinosaurs, and wumpires in it (but not the handsome, misunderstood kind), not to mention a Volcano God.

My Review

This is a Book Expo America 2013 book. Many thanks!

I have no clue what I could possibly say that you can't already gather in the description above. This is a purely fun romp and pays homage to all those dads out there who are being heroes to their kids, whether their families believe it or not, and whether they're simply buying milk for their kids' milk or out thwarting aliens bent on taking over our world. *wink wink* 

I love how the story starts out crazy - the dad gets accosted by aliens - and then gets crazier and crazier as the story goes on. I also love how the kids interject throughout the story, trying to call him out, and then he gets creative and adds a new twist into the story. The craziness reminds me of a Douglas Adams story.

I should also mention the illustrator - Skottie Young. I love the illustrations, which capture the fantastical images the dad relates to the kids perfectly. Some of the illustrations have a kind of Dr. Seuss look to them, if Dr. Seuss was haunted by nightmares of aliens, pirates, wumpires, and deadly piranhas. There's actually a seemingly explicit reference to Dr. Seuss in an image of a pony with a star on its side.

There are also a few other fun references in the book. For example, there was a reference to Twilight when the girl in the story asks if the wumpires were "nice, misunderstood" wumpires. Also, there are some fun timey-wimey loops in the story, which seem even funnier when you see that the dad is dressed in what is clearly the 4th doctor's scarf (from Doctor Who, for those who don't know what I'm referring to... is there such a person?).

Oh, and let's not forget the brilliant move of making milk a key plot element in the story!

Very fun book. Check it out!

Friday, May 15, 2015

Review: Beyonders: A World Without Heroes by Brandon Mull

Title: Beyonders: A World Without Heroes
Author: Brandon Mull
Publication Date: February 14, 2012
Target Age Group: Middle Grade
My Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5

Book Description (from Amazon)

Jason Walker has only wished his life could be a bit less predictable—until a routine day at the zoo ends with Jason suddenly transporting from the hippo tank to a place unlike anything he’s ever seen. In the past, the people of Lyrian welcomed visitors from the Beyond, but attitudes have changed since the wizard emperor Maldor rose to power. The brave resistors who opposed the emperor have been bought off or broken, leaving a realm where fear and suspicion prevail.

In his search for a way home, Jason meets Rachel, who was also mysteriously drawn to Lyrian from our world. With the help of a few scattered rebels, Jason and Rachel become entangled in a quest to piece together the word of power that can destroy the emperor and learn that their best hope to find a way home will be to save this world without heroes.

My Review

This is a book I received from the author at Book Expo America 2013, so thank you, thank you, to BEA and the author.

First of all, I loved this book. For starters, it has to have one of the most unique ways a character has ever been transported to another world in all the books I've ever read. That gets bonus points from me.

Second, this book is an epic quest, which is also high on my list of favorite types of books to read. Jason and Rachel enter this strange world of Lyrian unwillingly, and are only interested in returning home. However, they are drawn into a quest to find a magic word that will destroy Maldor, an evil wizard who rules over this broken land. At first, they both embark on the quest in order for it to lead to their way back to our world, but the more people they meet who are dedicate to the cause of destroying the evil wizard, the more involved they become. In contrast, coming across the many un-hero-like people in Lyrian also cause them to strengthen their resolve. Lyrian needs heroes, and Jason and Rachel step up nicely as the story progresses.

Third, keeping with the epic theme for a moment, the scope of the world of Lyrian is epic as well. Reading this book reminded me of playing a computer game called Myst. For those who have never seen this game, it's an amazingly detailed game where you navigate a fantasy world, solving puzzles along the way. I felt this book was very similar in that Jason and Rachel had to solve puzzles in order to find the pieces of the magic word that would destroy Maldor. Plus, Brandon Mull's skills at world-building made this book as vivid as that game was. 

Fourth... twist ending! Which I won't give away.

Fifth, there is lots of action, and many supporting characters whose alliances are always in question, which makes for interesting reading.

I could go on.

Why didn't I rate this a 5? I was very close. There was one thing that kept nagging at me, so I had to dock a few decimal points. I did notice there was some filler in this book, much of which involved either traveling from place to place, eating, or going to sleep or waking from sleep. Some of that probably could've been trimmed. 

Other than that, a very satisfying read, and one I recommend to everyone who likes fantasy, adventure, and mystery. This book is part of a series, so I can't wait read more! The copy I have has a small section of book two, which definitely piqued my interest.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Review: Randi Rhodes, Ninja Detective: The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit by Octavia Spencer

Title: Randi Rhodes, Ninja Detective: The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit
Author: Octavia Spencer
Publication Date: October 15, 2013
Target Age Group: Middle Grade
My Rating: 5 out of 5

Book Description (from back cover)

When Randi Rhodes moves to sleepy Deer Creek, she certainly isn't expecting the kinds of adventures she had in New York City. In the city she used her detective (and ninja) skills to solve mysteries. Nothing can compare to that.

But she finds that the small town's only hope for survival is the success of their Founders' Day Festival. And the time capsule that many people believe holds the town's treasure has gone missing.

So, along with her new best friend, D.C., Randi is determined to solve the case. Even if it means investigating in haunted cabins and facing mean old Angus McCarthy, prime suspect. The future of their whole town is at stake! Will these kids be able to save the day?

My Review

This is a book I received from the author at Book Expo America 2013, so once again, many many thanks to Ms. Spencer and BEA for the opportunity to review it. 

First, a little about my experience at BEA 2013 as it relates to this book. Ms. Spencer had the most awesome marketing campaign. Send a bunch of women out on the floors of the convention hall dressed as ninjas, and get people walking by to don their own ninja masks and take pictures. Brilliant!

But my 5/5 rating is not based on this experience, however fun it was. It's based on the fact that this is a really great, satisfying book for middle grade kids! 

The main character, Miranda "Randi" Rhodes, is someone you can care about. She has lost her mother, she thinks her father just doesn't understand her, and she's moving from New York City to a tiny town somewhere in Tennessee. She also happens to be a junior detective and a black belt in karate, which is kind of a fun combination. If you can't relate to her, I'm sure girls wish that they could be LIKE her. I also love the fact that, unbeknownst to her dad, she's been fighting crime and solving mysteries at her old home in New York City, all on her own.

If she didn't have enough trouble, when she arrives at her new town (a town she has visited often as a kid), she has to deal with a snotty girl who seems to have it in for her. Not a way to feel welcome in your new home, that's for sure. 

So there is lots of internal conflict for Randi in this story.

As for external conflict: not long after Randi arrives, she attends the Founders' Day Festival, where a time capsule, buried by the town's founders, is about to be opened. Legend has it that whatever is inside will save the town from it's slow decline. However, during a distraction at the opening ceremony, the time capsule is stolen. There is no shortage of suspects in this story. The ancestors of the founders don't get along with each other, so they have motives for taking the time capsule. There are also suspicious newcomers to the town.

The mystery part of the story is amazing. It's well-plotted. There are lots of red herrings. There are also lots of clues scattered about that, once you reach the end, fit together well enough that you could solve the mystery on your own (although I've never really been good at that myself). I also like the fact that Randi DOESN'T have all the answers, even though she is pretty bright and observant, and goes down the wrong path a few times in solving the case. She also has help from a cast of characters who are very well-developed and you wind up liking by the end, even the ones who appear to be suspects. She even gets to show off her ninja skills during the course of the story. There's plenty of action, a little spookiness, some real danger for Randi and her friends, and humor. And, some nice, heart-felt moments between Randi and her dad.

As an extra bonus, there are footnotes throughout the story linking it to Randi's "ninja tasks" (including how to cast footprints and how to conduct a stakeout), which is a fun way of bringing the reader into the story.

In short, this book has it all for middle graders (and for this kid at heart). :-)

Very highly recommended.

Now go out, find this book, read it, and give in to your inner ninja detective!

(Yes, that's me, the ninja detective wannabe in the middle of this picture.)

Friday, May 1, 2015

Review: Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman

Title: Make Good Art
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publication Date: May 14, 2013
Target Age Group: Adult
My Rating: 4 out of 5

Book Description (on inside cover)

In May 2012, bestselling author Neil Gaiman stood at a podium at Philadelphia's University of the Arts to deliver the commencement address. For the next nineteen minutes he shared his thoughts about creativity, bravery, and strength; he encouraged the students before him to break rules and think outside the box. Most of all, he urged the fledgling painters, musicians, writers, and dreamers to MAKE GOOD ART. This book, designed by renowned graphic artist Chip Kidd, contains the full text of Gaiman's inspiring speech. Whether bestowed upon a young artist beginning his or her creative journey, or given as a token of gratitude to an admired mentor, or acquired as a gift to oneself, this volume is a fitting offering for anyone who strives to MAKE GOOD ART. 

My Review

This is a book I received from the author at Book Expo America 2013. Thank you to Mr. Gaiman (whom I had the pleasure to listen to while I was there) and BEA for the opportunity to review it. 

I wish there were a way I could rate this book using two different ratings, one for the text and message of the book, and one for its presentation, but I'm not about to break my rating system to do so. So let me explain my only negative points right off the bat as they all relate to the book's presentation.

While I do commend the graphic artist's creativity and ability, I did have two distinct problems with the way the book was presented:
     * the white text on light blue background combination that was periodically used in
       the book made the text difficult to read
     * in some cases, the presentation of the text on the page (such as writing one line of text 
       both upside down and backward while everything else was written normally) was 

To give him credit, however, there were other cases where I thought the creative layout of the page worked very well. I especially loved the page where Mr. Gaiman's positive message, "Make Good Art", is juxtaposed on top of text describing negative things that you might be experiencing in your life.

As for the text and message of the book, I cannot say enough good things about it. Mr. Gaiman shares little tidbits of his own personal journey in a way that is sure to inspire anyone about to embark on, or is currently engaged in, a career in the creative arts. In his own unique way, he tells people it's OK to not have a plan, to break the rules, to make mistakes, and to emulate others yet have your own style. In fact, he has engaged in all of these things on his own career path and attributes all of these to his own success. Above all, he encourages people to enjoy the journey itself and to MAKE GOOD ART.

A highly recommended little book when you need a little creative inspiration.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Review: Saint Odd by Dean Koontz

Title: Saint Odd
Author: Dean Koontz
Publication Date: January 13, 2015
Target Age Group: Adult
My Rating: 4 out of 5

Book Description (from Amazon)

Odd Thomas is back where it all started . . . because the time has come to finish it. Since he left his simple life in the small town of Pico Mundo, California, his journey has taken him to places strange and wonderful, mysterious and terrifying. Across the land, in the company of mortals and spirits alike, he has known kindness and cruelty, felt love and loss, saved lives and taken them—as he’s borne witness to humanity’s greatest good and darkest evil. Again and again, he has gone where he must and done what he had to do—for better or worse—with his courage and devotion sorely tested, and his soul forever changed. Every triumph has been hard won. Each sacrifice has taken its toll.

Now, whatever destiny drives him has finally steered his steps home, where those he cares for most surround him, the memory of his tragically lost true love haunts him, and one last challenge—vast and dreadful—awaits him. For Odd Thomas, born to serve a purpose far greater than himself, the wandering is done. Only the reckoning remains.

My Review

This book was very bittersweet for me, because I've grown to love Odd Thomas as a character. At the beginning of the series, he was as pure a character as you could find. Resisting violence, but wanting to do good by the dead that came into his life seeking his help. He kept his life simple - he worked as a fry cook in a small diner - and his relationship with his girlfriend was enviable. Unfortunately, throughout the series, all that changed. He lost the love of his life, gunned down by a crazed cult bent on bringing about the end of the world, and had increasingly been placed into situations where he had to dispense violence to combat violence. By the time I had reached this book, I really felt sorry for him and felt he had lost much of the innocence that was appealing in book one, and I hoped he could find peace.

Which brings me to this book. This story could easily be any other story in the saga of Odd Thomas's life. It's set up pretty much the same way as book one, as a matter of fact, especially because it takes place in the same setting as book one and dealing with the same group of villains. Seeing all of Odd's old friends from book one was the author's and the reader's chance to say goodbye to everyone I suppose.

What caused me not to rate this book a 5 out of 5 (which I was prepared to do) was, even though all the elements were here of a typical Odd Thomas book (his unique, somewhat still innocent view of the world; the strangeness; the uniqueness of characters; the humor, although admittedly less of it in this book), by the end I was dissatisfied with many questions that were presented throughout the series that were never answered. 

One such thread, and noticeably missing from this book, involves the bodachs, those creepy, shadowy creatures which seem to appear and feast on catastrophic future events to come. In book one, Odd had a theory of who, or what, these beings might be, but by the end of the last book, the reader still doesn't really know. Were they really time travelers coming back in a strange form to revel in chaos and death? (This was what Odd's theory was, anyway). Or were they something else entirely? It would've been easy for Mr. Koontz to offer up this explanation. After all, there is definitely a strong element of time travel in some of the other books. But he never does. 

You also never really learn who Annamaria really is, you never really learn who Edie is, and the big reveal about Stormy (which I'll omit for those who haven't read yet) is underwhelming because, well, there just aren't enough details to explain why it's important. Among other unanswered mysteries.

All in all, though, it's an Odd Thomas book, and I can't give it a low rating because it's written in a similar flying by the seat of your pants way as all the other Odd Thomas books and has some of my favorite fictional character in it. Plus, I loved the ending. It could only end one way, and in that sense, I was satisfied. I wish there were more to come, but I suppose it was time for Mr. Koontz to give Odd a rest. I would highly recommend it to Odd Thomas fans, and to those who haven't read any of them yet, what are you waiting for? Go back to book one and dig in!

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Review: The 7th of London by Beau Schemery

Title: The 7th of London
Author: Beau Schemery
Publication Date: November 29, 2012
Target Age Group: Young Adult
My Rating: 3 out of 5

Book Description (from Amazon)

After his parents and family die, Seven escapes his factory job. By wits and will alone, he survives in a London divided into the affluent Fairside and the squalor of London’s industrial Blackside, where many struggle to eke their existence out of despair. But Seven has to fight for more than just food and shelter. 

All over Blackside, a secret cabal of prominent citizens and the mysterious Mr. Kettlebent are snatching children. Rumor has it a wizard is controlling the queen, and the country’s most notorious villain is the only one who wants to stop him. Seven is determined to find out why. 

Hired by the criminal Jack Midnight to steal the evil wizard’s spellbook, Seven soon discovers the mystery runs deeper than he suspected. But events spiral out of control, and it isn’t long before the intrigue sweeps Seven into its deadly current. 

My Review

This is a book I received from the author at Book Expo America 2013, so as always, many many thanks to Mr. Schemery and BEA for the opportunity to review it. 

First off, I love steampunk books. This one definitely fits comfortably in that category, and yet has some other unique elements to it - like some magic and alternate history to add some flavor. Plus, the main character is gay, which is a great book in an arena where there is currently a desire for diverse books.

The world building in this book is amazing. You're thrown into a divided Victorian London - the Fairside and the Blackside. Just the names alone will give you an idea what they look like, but they are both very well described in the book. There are other "set pieces" that I can't even discuss without ruining some of the mystery of the story.

Characters are also very three-dimensional. Sometimes they suffer a little from being caricatures of themselves - the main character, Seven, has this accent that kinda grates on you after a while - but otherwise they are all interesting and realistically drawn, with some exceptions, which I'll discuss below.

Which brings me to a few negatives that caused me not to rate this one higher.

First off, the story could've used a little more editing. Being a writer myself, I pick up on language that to me sounds weak, and there is quite a bit of it in this book. Again, some editing would've solved that problem I think.

Second, at the very beginning of the book, there are a lot of what I call "info dumps", I guess to bring the reader up to speed on the main character and the setting of the story. Again, editing would've resolved this. Info dumps tend to throw me out of the story when reading, and it initially caused me to consider putting the book down. Fortunately, I was willing to overlook them, and I was glad I did so.

Third - and I'm attempting to convey this without spoiling anything - the relationship between Seven and another boy in the book (I won't mention names because it'll kinda spoil certain plot reveals in the book), while most of the time seemed very natural, was very difficult to believe at the point where the characters first met, and at another point toward the end of the book. I would think conflicts and suspicion in any relationship would give pause and question the relationship, but I didn't see any of that, which also made it difficult to buy into the relationship. (How's that for an attempt at no spoilers? Sounds a bit vague I know, but if you read the book I think you'll know what two events I'm referring to.)

One final note - and it's always customary to leave on a high note - is that this book was plotted extremely well. Events flowed naturally, there was plenty of suspense, twists and turns, and real goals for characters to strive for. The scope of the story was a lot more epic than I thought it would be, and to its benefit. The stakes for Seven were high, and the stakes for the world itself and the other characters populating it were even higher. 

All in all, this is a book I would recommend. Ignore the rough spots and enjoy the ride.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Review: Get in Trouble by Kelly Link

Title: Get in Trouble
Author: Kelly Link
Publication Date: February 3, 2015
Target Age Group: Adult
My Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5

Book Description (from inside cover)

She has been hailed by Michael Chabon as "the most darkly playful voice in American fiction" and by Neil Gaiman as "a national treasure." Now Kelly Link's eagerly awaited new collection - her first for adult readers in a decade - proves indelibly that this bewitchingly original writer is among the finest we have.


Hurricanes, astronauts, evil twins, bootleggers, Ouija boards, iguanas, The Wizard of Oz, superheroes, the Pyramids... These are just some of the talismans of an imagination as capacious and as full of wonder as that of any writer today. But as fantastical as these stories can be, they are always grounded by sly humor and an innate generosity of feeling for the frailty - and the hidden strengths - of human beings. In Get in Trouble, this one-of-a-kind talent expands the boundaries of what short fiction can do.

My Review

What can I say about this book? A collection of short stories by one of my favorite authors. Why do I like her so much? Because she writes amazing stories about people who may be quirky but have real problems deep down, placed in the most surreal, and many times totally unreal, settings. 

One recurring theme in most of these stories has to do with people who are in strained relationships - whether it be with spouses, boyfriends/girlfriends, friends, and in one case, a sort of caregiver/client relationship. Another common theme involves people who make rash decisions with harsh consequences and how they try to rise above those decisions. 

These serious problems are set against what are arguably some of the most bizarre backdrops ever imagined in short fiction, and it's the juxtaposition of these two elements that provides much of the dark humor in these stories. 

And, her story ideas are just plain the coolest that I only wish I could've come up with myself. I mean, where else can you read about:

- a jealous girl who tries to steal her best friend's animated doll-like Boyfriend? ("The New Boyfriend")
- a group of space travelers who tell each other ghost stories, and who have their spaceship, who knows a secret ghost story of her own, place the travelers in the stories' settings? ("Two Houses")
- a girl who meets someone on the internet and goes to a secret rendezvous at a hotel that is simultaneously hosting superhero and dentist conventions? ("Secret Identity")
- a girl, caretaker of the mysterious visitors inhabiting the cottage behind her house, who is grooming her replacement? ("The Summer People")

My only reason for not giving this book a 5 out of 5 is because I've read some of the stories before, and a couple of them I don't find to be quite as strong as the others.

My recommendation, in a nutshell: Read these stories. Be amazed at the directions Kelly Link's stories will take you. You're in for a very wild ride.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Review: The Slippage by Ben Greenman *** MILD SPOILERS ***

Title: The Slippage
Author: Ben Greenman
Publication Date: April 23, 2013
Target Age Group: Adult
My Rating: 4 out of 5

Book Description (from Amazon)

The Slippage is a wry, wistful tale of marriage, lust, and disconnection from Ben Greenman, the critically acclaimed author of What He’s Poised to Do.

William Day must confront some uncomfortable truths about his life and his future when his wife Louisa asks him to build her house. The take-it-or-leave-it demand becomes all the more difficult to swallow when he finds himself grappling with a past recklessness, an ex-girlfriend’s son he considers his own, and his own wants for what lies ahead.

Sure to appeal to everyone who has ever been in love and had their heart broken, The Slippage shares uncanny truths about intimacy and modern relationships.

My Review:
***NOTE: In this review, I feel there may be mild spoilers, especially some thematic ones, so reader beware. ***
First off, I want to mention this is another book I obtained at Book Expo America in 2013, so thanks again to them and to the author, Ben Greenman.

Second, this book is not my typical reading material.

Third, in light of that, this book was a pleasant surprise. In general, one way I judge books as being good ones if they stick with you long after you've read them. This book is definitely one of those books.

As I was reading this book, I thought it was a bit slow. Which is my usual reaction to literary fiction. Then I realized, yes, I'm reading about William Day's life, but I'm also reading about life in general. This is a book of themes, which are the things that stick with you when the book is finished.

Here is a definition, right from one of the characters in the book. Slippage - "the moment when you start to lose your footing." When we first are introduced to William in the book, the slippage has already started to happen to him. As we read further, his reckless behavior with regards to his relationship with his wife and his job causes him to slip even further.The question is: why? Why the reckless behavior? 

At first, you can't really sympathize with him. He's the cause of his own misery. Some people might be able to relate to him, but you can't like him. Maybe because, were you in the same situation, you couldn't like yourself. 

Then I started to think about one of the elements of the "human condition". Like how people build layers upon layers of "things" - feverishly working long hours at a job, climbing the career ladder, building a new home or addition, going on a vacation, settling into the humdrum existence of suburban life - to hide from what is truly troubling to them. For some, these "things" can be much more reckless.

Another great line, from Louisa, William's wife - "We make a pact with another person to follow as far as they go, but we do not really mean it. We mean that we will follow so long as we do not start to feel lost. Love, or what passes for it, is about believing that we are never truly lost." This is a powerful theme that sticks with me after reading the book, because here lies the cause of many problems in relationships, the fear to go where the relationship takes them, no matter where that might be.

There are other positive things I'd love to say about this story - one such thing is about Louisa's brother, Tom, and his "graph" art, which are funny but thoughtful asides in and of themselves - but I think this review has already gotten longer than I expected.

Check out the book. It's thought-provoking, a little slow and melancholy, but an interesting read.