bookish posts monthly book list reviews

December 2014 round-up

Books I’ve already talked about
Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater
Terror of the Southlands by Caroline Carlson
Killer Instinct by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero

Other books
Space Case by Stuart Gibbs: A Cybils book. A mystery set in the first colony on the moon, in 2060. It’s kind of a locked-room mystery, and the set-up is fun. But I was vaguely annoyed with a few things: the fact that there’s no way to deduce the solution, and the fact that twenty-four years from today, almost everyone is mixed race and people of northern European descent are very rare, which seems implausibly utopian for a generation and a half from now. While neither of these things completely ruined the book for me, they did keep me from enjoying it as thoroughly as I otherwise might have.

Ambassador by William Alexander: A Cybils book. I read Space Case and Ambassador back to back, which was an interesting experience. While they have some outward similarities, they’re quite different in intent and tone. I loved Gabriel Fuentes, who is definitely an 11-year-old boy but who is also a peacemaker, who as child of immigrants has a foot in two worlds, and who is chosen as Earth’s ambassador to a galactic embassy. I appreciated the way Gabe’s family and culture were woven into the story, and the way Alexander makes the real-life situation just as tense and important as the save-the-Earth strand. A lovely, thoughtful piece of science fiction.

The Witch’s Boy by Kelly Barnhill: A Cybils book. I had tried one of Barnhill’s other books and didn’t get through it for reasons that I don’t quite remember. This one I found to be really beautiful. It’s a sad book in many ways, but ultimately I felt a hopeful one (I know there are others that disagree with me here). What I remember most about this one is the particular sense of place and character that Barnhill conveys in not that many words.

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett: This one is in some ways a bit standard, but I really liked the main character and the worldbuilding is fairly intriguing. There’s a nice sense of depth to it, although I felt it paled in comparison to The Goblin Emperor. But then, most fantasy this year paled in comparison to The Goblin Emperor

Children Who Are Not Yet Peaceful by Donna Bryant Goertz: An interesting book written by a veteran Montessori teacher about her philosophy in dealing with difficult children. I found her point of view thought-provoking and challenging, but I also found myself feeling a little unimpressed with how much her position is defined by being against certain things. I don’t disagree with some of her conclusions, but they are presented in a very hard-line way that I don’t really like.

Intruder by CJ Cherryh: Thirteenth Foreigner book! I liked this one especially for Cajieri, who has to deal with the very different situation in Shejidan after being returned to his parents. In addition, those parents are in the midst of turmoil themselves, which makes things even trickier. Bren, meanwhile, has to deal with the aftermath of his decisions in the Marid.

Poisoned Apples by Christine Heppermann: A poetry collection that’s also feminist fairy-tale retellings with a curated selection of photographs. I know of several people who I respect who really loved this one. For me it didn’t quite work and I’m struggling to say way. I think I found the fairy tales too much in service to the feminism, and at the same time found that the feminism was hitting a couple of notes very hard and not touching on others. I think there’s value in this approach, but for me the specific notes didn’t resonate and so I didn’t love it in the same way that other readers do.

Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein: More coming closer to the release date, but I loved Teo!

Wondrous Beauty by Carol Berkin: A biography of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, the American girl who briefly married one of Napoleon’s brothers. Berkin comes down a little strongly on how unique Betsy was, but all in all this is an interesting look at a fascinating life and time period.

Paladin by CJ Cherryh: Non-Foreigner universe Cherryh. Alternate universe China, if I’m reading it right (also, I think I saw someone say this was historical fantasy, but literally nothing fantastic happened so??). I enjoyed it quite a bit, especially the end. The beginning took awhile to get to where I was hoping it would end up, but ultimately this was a fun one.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson: Beautiful. I don’t think the poetry in and of itself is quite as strong as The Crossover, but I also don’t think the value of this one lies in the poetry. It’s in the stories, the creation of identity through family history, through memory.

Into the Grey by Celine Kiernan: Don’t do what I did and start this one just before going to bed! It’s terrifically creepy, and I don’t consider myself someone who’s easily affected by creepiness. This would make an interesting pairing with Frances Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song (<3) which is telling a similar story but from a very different point of view. I liked this one, which was thoughtful and atmospheric, although I felt it got a bit bogged down in the middle.

Hunting by Andrea K Host: I really loved this one–it’s already one of my favorites by Host. It’s perhaps a bit more predictable, especially if you’ve been reading through all of her backlist as I have, but in a comforting way. It’s a rare girl-pretending-to-be-a-boy story that will grab my attention anymore, but this one did. My only complaint is that I want to know more about what happens to Kiri, but hey, maybe she’ll end up with her own book.

A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintrye: I really liked Macintyre’s Double Cross a few years ago, and this one about Kim Philby and his relationships with his fellow spies sounded intriguing. There wasn’t the innate interest that WWII holds for me, but Macintyre is a compelling writer and I ended up liking it a lot.

Stained Glass Monsters by Andrea K Host: Another one I liked quite a bit, although perhaps not quite as strongly as Hunting. The worldbuilding was very interesting, but I occasionally found the magic a bit confusing (on the other hand, I was reading it late at night, so it could easily have been Lack of Brain). However, I really liked the characters, especially Rennyn, and found the resolution pretty satisfying.

A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd
The Orphan and the Mouse by Martha Freeman
The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel
Ninja Librarians: The Accidental Keyhand by Jen Swann Downey
Spirit’s Key by Edith Cohn

Other posts
Making a display for Hobbit read-alikes
Links I found interesting
2014 favorites

TV and movies
The Hobbit As I’ve said several time, if the hour+ battle scene had been edited down significantly, I would have liked this movie quite a bit. It’s funny to look back and remember how dubious I was about Richard Armitage playing Thorin. He did a great job, I thought (aside from the hilaribad gold-sickness sequence, which isn’t his fault, I suppose). I thought the costume designers did a nice, if slightly obvious, transition for him into this increasingly isolated and formal figure and back into Thorin Oakenshield. If the movie had been edited to be the Tragedy of Thorin, King Under the Mountain, it would have been great.

Poirot: I’ve been having fun this month watching through old Poirot episodes. I’ve seen a great many of them and read nearly all the books/stories they’re based on, but I have never gone through and watched them sequentially. Thanks to the magic of Netflix, I can do so now. And my major goal in life is now to become more like Miss Lemon.

Person of Interest: I’ve started watching the third series and I am distressed at a certain character’s death. Not so much the way it was handled as the clumsy attempt at romance which came right before. Regardless, I still enjoy this one quite a bit and intend to finish out the season soon.

Elementary: I started the second season and really liked it–I like this Holmes so much better than the Moffat/Gatiss version, which I know is terrible but there it is. And I think the writers are doing interesting things with the Holmes canon in a way that I’m happy with.

Catching Fire & Mockingjay Part 1: As previously discussed, these were favorites for the year. They’re really effective movies, which so many book to screen adaptations aren’t. And Jennifer Lawrence is absolutely superb as Katniss.

bookish posts reviews

Recent Reading: 11-28-14

this one summerThis One Summer by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki: A gorgeous graphic novel, which I appreciated very much in terms of artistry, storytelling, and thoughtfulness, but which never entirely grabbed me emotionally. I’m not sure how much of this is due to reading experience (I read it in two chunks) and how much is due to the fact that it was much more of a window book for me than a mirror one. That is, I experienced that age very differently and while I liked how true it seemed to a certain experience of teenage girl life, it didn’t quite resonate with me in the way I imagine it might for other readers. I did love the wordlessness of some of the panels, how the authors relied on these beats of silence to evoke the languid feeling of summer and the tense moments of a struggling family. (Kelly Jensen also has a really nice review of this one, which is worth checking out.)

octobia mayThe Unstoppable Octobia May by Sharon Flake: I’ve been looking forward to this one for a few months, ever since I saw the awesome cover art and premise on Edelweiss. Octobia May is a stubborn, curious girl, who believes that one of the lodgers at her aunt’s house is a vampire. When she attempts to prove this, she uncovers a far different, but equally sinister, state of affairs. I liked this one, although I find it a bit hard to grapple with in a certain way. There’s a lot about being black, being a black woman and therefore unable to get a loan from a bank, and Octobia May’s desire to circumvent all of these rules. In the end, I think, she comes to understand that it’s more complicated than that. And yet, I struggle with how to characterize the book’s larger message, which I only say because I felt that there was one and I didn’t quite get it. Maybe that’s just fine and it’s not a book that in that sense is meant for me (I still loved the mystery and Octobia May herself, so it worked for me on that level). I also want to know more about Octobia May’s family and her somewhat mysterious illness. Hopefully there will be more from Flake about these characters.

the crossoverThe Crossover by Kwame Alexander: I’m not normally a big fan of basketball books, and this is a book “about” basketball. I’m not normally a fan of books in free verse–too often I just don’t see the form justified. But I can’t imagine The Crossover as anything but poetry. Alexander writing as Josh is by turns thoughtful, lyrical, hilarious, and heartbreaking. Some of the poems are bubbling over with effervescence, some are somber and quiet. All of them feel like a teenage boy, grappling with some of the biggest changes he will ever face. Basketball is Josh’s love, and that shows in several of the poems, but it’s not really what the book is about: it’s about family and love and forgiveness and growing up. And it’s the first book in quite some time that made me just full-on cry. I can’t recommend it enough.

el deafoEl Deafo by Cece Bell: A graphic memoir by Cece Bell, showing her childhood after she suddenly went deaf following an illness. I really liked it, especially the way it showed how she navigates the world with the help of lip reading and other artificial aids, but never let that be the only point of the story. It’s clear and funny, and I think a lot of kids will get Cece’s desire to find a best friend, and the journey that desire takes her on. There are also some fun interludes as she imagines herself as a superhero (the titular El Deafo). I also really appreciated the afterword, which goes a bit more into the deaf/Deaf culture and how her experience was perhaps a bit different than many others.

magic thief homeThe Magic Thief: Home by Sarah Prineas: Fourth book in the Magic Thief series, and a Cybils nominee. Conn and his friends are faced with a new issue as someone is stealing the locus stones of all the magicians in the city. Meanwhile, Rowan as the duchess has named Conn the ducal magister, which he is not happy about at all. (Nor are most of the other magisters, to be fair.) This one is perhaps best for readers who have finished the other books in the series, but it’s just as delightful. Conn is of the plucky slightly-amoral type of character, but at the same time he has a good heart and part of his journey is learning to trust others. A great one for the kid who will love The Thief in a few years.

bookish posts reviews

Recent reading: Cybils edition

These all fall into a roughly similar category: books I enjoyed enough to finish but not enough to wax enthusiastic about.

Oliver and the Seawigs
by Philip Reeve: Oliver and his explorer parents return home only for his parents to be taken out to sea by things that look like islands but move. Oliver heads off to rescue them. It’s all very silly, in a way that will probably appeal to some kids. There’s just not much meat here, though.

Grave Images by Jenny Goebel: Bernie’s family owns a gravestone engraving business, but when her dad hires a mysterious new employee, things are not at all what they seem. I liked the Southern Gothic atmosphere, the way religion is part of the story, and (for the most part) Bernie herself. I am less convinced about the portrayal of Bernie’s mother, Michael, and–unfortunately–the central conceit itself. This one never quite settled into a tone and kept trying to be both spooky and over-the-top silly.

Winterfrost by Michelle Houts: This was my own nomination for my category, mostly because I myself wanted to read it. It’s quite a nice story. Bettina’s parents have gone off to visit relatives, leaving her in charge of her little sister. But in the confusion, they forgot to put out the rice pudding for the farm’s nisse, and the nisse isn’t happy. This would be a great one for the child that grew up with the Tomten’s Farm picture books, or anyone who likes a slightly old-fashioned story.

The Zero Degree Zombie Zone by Patrik Henry Bass: I really appreciated that the main characters of this one are all African-American. No tokens here! And it’s a niceish enemies-to-friends story, with a subplot of Bakari’s grandfather that seemed very true to life. However, there’s basically no plot. Definitely one to hand to reluctant readers (of any skin color) but more than a bit grating as an adult.

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier: Lots of other people have loved this one and they’re not wrong, exactly. Auxier does a nice job of creating atmosphere, in the sourwoods and the creepy house. But for me as a reader, I was never quite fully engaged by it. This is definitely a personal reaction, and at the same time, I think there’s something a little too easy in all the portrayals of the characters.

Almost Super by Marion Jensen: This is kind of a Savvy-like idea: kids in the Bailey family who are 12 or older get super powers at 4:23 on February 29th. They use their powers to fight the villainous Johnsons. But Rafter and his brother get the weakest superpowers ever. This was pretty solidly middle-of-the-road for me: an okay read, but not one I got excited about. Kids who are looking for fairly light superhero books, however, will probably love this! I’ve seen it as a readalike for fans of The Incredibles, and that’s just about right.

bookish posts reviews

Greenglass House by Kate Milford

greenglass houseGreenglass House is a smugglers’ inn, but it is also Milo Pine’s home. He loves his house and his parents and he would be happy if nothing ever changed. But one snowy evening, two strangers arrive unexpectedly, setting into motion a chain of events which will force Milo to look at himself and his family.

I’d been hearing a fair amount of buzz about Greenglass House when it came out, so I was excited to see that it was nominated for the Cybils. I’ve read one of Milford’s earlier books and liked it. Plus the cover is very appealing! (I have a weakness when it comes to great covers.)

I’m happy to say that I enjoyed my reading experience immensely. Of course, it probably helped that I read this one while curled up in a little eyrie of a room in a bed & breakfast, which about the most perfect place I can imagine for this particular story. But I think I would have liked it whenever and wherever I read it.

This is an elegant book, with a puzzle-like quality to it which is very satisfying to the intellect. It’s rich with layers, imagery, and allusions. But at the heart of it is a very human, very real story which is never overshadowed by the elements that support it.

Adoption is something I’m familiar with, but only from the outside, so I can’t speak particularly to that aspect of Milo’s story. But I think Milford is both trying to accurately portray what Milo might feel, and at the same time show that longing to understand the world that’s a hallmark of middle grade books. I said of The Whispering Skull that it was “poised at the tipping point between childhood and young adulthood, when you want the next thing but fear losing what you already have.” That’s certainly here too. It’s a thoughtful, introspective look at leaving childhood behind.

It’s also a pretty awesome mystery (I guessed parts but not the whole solution!), and features a wonderful setting, which I definitely added to my mental list of Fictional Places to Visit. And Milford’s writing is really strong here, a quiet but very carefully crafted narration. All in all, this is a lovely book, and one that more than lives up to its cover.

Book source: public library
Book information: 2014, HMH Books; middle grade

bookish posts reviews

The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud

whisperingLast year brought us Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase, which was a 99.9% enjoyable book for me, and one that left me wanting the sequel now.

The sequel has now arrived and I’m happy to report that I found it as engaging and entirely readable as the first book. Lockwood, George, and Lucy find themselves going head to head with their archrivals, the Fittes Agency, and attempting to battle the ghost of a Victorian doctor and possible black magician. Plus, there is a skull in a jar whose whispers only Lucy can hear.

At first the different strands of the plot seem a bit disparate. There’s the Source that they have to deal with, the bet with the Fittes agents, the skull and its suggestive comments, and Lockwood’s secrets which he keeps even from George and Lucy. But by the middle of the book, Stroud pulls them together in a fairly masterful (if slightly coincidental) way.

For me, Lucy’s voice and the interaction between the three main characters is a large part of the appeal. Lucy is loyal, sarcastic, a bit self-centered (or at least, unable to see people entirely clearly). I had some issues with the way George was described in the first book, and while that didn’t exactly go away, I can see the dynamic becoming more complicated in ways that make me feel like Stroud may ultimately do some interesting things with the questions of heroes and so on.

I also noticed that, like E.K. Johnston’s Story of Owen, the narrator is a young girl who is telling a story she is involved in but which she normally wouldn’t be considered the protagonist of. In most stories of this type, Lockwood would be firmly at the center of the narrative. Instead, he remains a bit of an enigma, his charisma described by the other characters but never entirely felt. For the most part, this works for me, because Lucy herself is quite delightful and doesn’t come across as simply a storytelling device. But I did find myself a bit hung up on why Lockwood wouldn’t tell George and Lucy anything.

And it’s also true that, because of the way the world of this book works, there’s an interesting sense of time passing, of growing inevitably older and losing something as well as gaining it, which is fairly striking. Lockwood & Co are growing up and as they grow they will lose their powers. I wonder if this is partly what makes it specifically a middle grade book: poised at the tipping point between childhood and young adulthood, when you want the next thing but fear losing what you already have.

Of course, Stroud has decided to leave us with a Big Revelation which makes me wish it was next year already. However, the main strands of the narrative are nicely tied up, with a few lingering questions to tease us all along.

Book source: public library
Book information: 2014, Disney Hyperion; upper middle grade/younger YA

I read this book for the 2014 Cybils. You’ll be able to see all of my Cybils reviews by clicking here.

(True fact: I almost said this book was written by Jonathan Strange, not Jonathan Stroud. How surprised Strange would be!)