Tuesday, July 29, 2014

"The Night Circus" by Erin Morgenstern

One of my former co-workers and generally awesome person hosts a monthly book club.  While my advanced pregnancy rarely lets me stay awake late enough to attend the meetings, I almost always read the book.

I'm not generally a fan of the circus.  Clowns make me uncomfortable and I often feel like the bearded lady and I have a little too much in common.  These two things made me a little nervous to pick up "The Night Circus".  Would I really like a book about a circus?  What kind of story can the author tell that hasn't been told a thousand times already?  But pick it up I did...and here's what I thought:

Summary:  All is not what it seems at Le Cirque des Reves.  Open only at night, the Circus of Dreams rolls into town unannounced and seems to appear magically overnight.  The circus enthralls its guests with its back and white atmosphere, amazing acts and tents that seem to put even the most creative imagination to shame.

But all is not as it seems.  For deep within the circus, two illusionists are playing a game set into motion when they were children.  Neither player knows the what it will take to win nor just how high the stakes are.

What I Liked:
  • I thought the premise of the book was quite interesting:  two young people are raised and trained to play in a game in which they do not know their opponent, what it takes to win, and what will happen if they loose.  Played out in the Circus, each opponent seems to be limited only by their creativity and abilities.
  • The side characters and side stories were quite interesting  Usually filler, the supporting cast in The Night Circus added to the plot and helped move the story - which covered years - along in a way that was mostly reasonable.
  • Magic.  There's something about magic in a story that transports me into another world so completely that I have no trouble accepting things that would normally cause me to side eye the story.  The magic scenes in The Night Circus were rich with detail and described in a way that was completely captivating.
What Drove Me Nuts:
  • The story was a little slow in parts.  I felt like the plot took a tad to long too long to be told.
  • The ending was a little unsatisfying.  I won't say too much for fear of giving anything away, but I rather expected the book to go out with a bang instead of sort of....fading away.
  • The Circus was assumed to be amazing and magical and secondary characters consistently described the Circus in such a way, but upon further reflection I felt the author could have done more to show how the Circus and its players earned the status.

Rating:  Amid a fantastically imaginative setting with interesting characters and a plot that twists and turns unexpectedly, The Night Circus is a great book to read if you're looking for something that is fun and strange and just a little sad.

Also Read By:  Nothing yet, this is a debut novel by the author.

Reviewed By:  Tami

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Fantastic Summer Reads for Young Readers

Somewhere out there is that one book that inspires a young mind to become a reader.

I didn't really start reading until I was in fourth grade.  The summer I turned nine my family moved to a new town to live with family for awhile and I had to start a new school, adjust to a new home and try to make new friends.  The fact that my younger brother and I were two of only four new kids in the entire school was an added bonus to the already challenging time.  Already much taller than the other kids and painfully self conscious and shy, I turned to books to help make the lonely days a little easier.

The first books I remember reading and loving was The Baby-Sitters Club series by Ann M. Martin.  Between the pages I found a group of uniquely different girls that loved kids, had adventures and were always there for their best friends.  I devoured them.

While I eventually grew older than Kristy, Claudia and the gang, I developed a fondness for loosing myself in a good story after a long day of school and homework.  A habit was born and since I fourth grade hardly a day has gone by that I haven't read a few chapters pages of a book.

Over the weekend I started thinking about what to get my nephew for his eighth birthday.  Legos came to mind.  As did a video game.  Or a water gun.  Or even a gift card to buy an app or two for his tablet.

But then it came to me:  a book.  A truly great chapter book that will inspire him to share one of my greatest passions...reading.  It's actually a really daunting task, trying to think of a book an active 8-year-old would like when there are so many other ways to spend his time an energy.  I did some research online and found some great lists, such as this one from NPR, but when it comes down to it, I want to give him a book that I loved as a kid in the hopes that if he doesn't love it this summer, he'll pick it up in a few years and discover something magical.  So I present to you:

[1]  Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling
The unwanted burden of his Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon, young Harry resigns himself to his cousins castoffs, daily bullying and the inevitability of a ho-hum life.  As his eleventh birthday nears Harry begins to notice strange things happening.  An awful haircut grows out overnight, a hideous sweater shrinks until he can no longer wear it and he has an actual conversation with a snake!  Then one day an owl delivers an old fashioned envelope addressed to Harry.  From that moment on, Harry's life turns into an amazing adventure in which he learns magic, finds the true meaning of family and friendship and sets out to save the wizarding world.  The Potter series isn't afraid to help kids explore fear, friendship, loss and the meaning between good and evil.

[2]  The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley
Orphaned Harry Crewe travels to the Homeland's remote desert outpost of Daria to live with her brother Richard. Shortly after her arrival, Corlath, King of the desert people arrives at the fort to warn the Homelanders of a terrible threat.  The Homelanders ignore Corlath's warning and he leaves in anger.  Later that evening,
seemingly out of the blue Corlath returns to the fort and kidnaps Harry.  What at first seems like a terrifying and confusing event turns into a series of self discoveries that helps Harry find her purpose in life and strength in herself.  The Blue Sword is an easy to read story with a strong female lead that shows that girls can do whatever they set their mind to, even if everyone else is telling them they can't.

[3]  The Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Laura lives with her Pa, Ma, Mary, and her beloved dog Jack on the frontier of America in the mid 1800s.  Little House in the Big Woods describes what life was like for five-year-old Laura and the Ingalls family as they traded labor with friends and family deep in the woods of Wisconsin in order to  prepare for the upcoming winter months.  Told in an engagingly endearing way, no topic is taboo as Laura recalls what it was like to help slaughter pigs for meat, farm the land for daily food and the ups and downs of living in a one room log cabin far from neighbors and family.  This series gives a fascinating look at what life was like 150 years ago, long before indoor pluming and grocery stores.

[4]  Matilda by Roald Dahl
Young Matilda Wormwood is extraordinary in a very ordinary family.  An avid reader and intelligent beyond her years, Matilda is a bit of a prankster who uses her amazing sense of concentration to play pranks on people she feels deserve to learn a lesson---mainly her dishonest parents and cruel teachers.  One day Matilda connects with a young teacher who recognizes Matilda's brightness.  Miss Honey mentors Matilda's unique mind and opens her up to a whole new world of books and learning.  Full of mischief and magic and discovery, Matilda is a fun read for kids and parents alike.

[5]  The Giver by Lois Lowry
Jonas lives in a Utopian society that has elected for "sameness" in order to eradicate fear, anger, hunger and war.  Each family is created for compatibility, citizens are assigned jobs that are suited for their skills, and all needs are met equally.  During their twelfth year, each young person is assigned to the job he or she will have for the rest of their lives as an adult. During the assignment ceremony, Jonas is assigned to become the next Receiver of Memory.  As he learns what it means to receive the memories the public lost in their quest for sameness, Jonas learns the depth of what humanity has given up.  Will he be able to live within society now that he knows what is missing?

While these five books made the largest impression on me in my youth, I feel like there are a few others that deserve honorable mentions:

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

"Summon the Keeper" by Tanya Huff

Moment of honesty:  My Aunt lent me this book back in 2010 and I hesitated to read it because one of the main characters was a cat.  That talks.  I'm not sure why this prevented me from giving the book a shot---especially since my Aunt is usually spot on with suggestions---but it did.  What's more ridiculous is that I've read books full of magic or vampires or talking horses.  I guess it was just something about the cat.  Four years later when I moved into my new house with my husband, I came across a box of books that had been loaned to me and that I intended to read "someday".  I picked this one off the top of the pile and sped through it in a few days.

Summary:  When a Keeper feels a Summoning, she must follow the command.  That's how Claire Hansen finds herself checking into Elysian Fields Guesthouse Bed and Breakfast on a blustery Canadian evening.   When Claire wakes up the next morning, she finds herself not only the new owner of the Guesthouse, but with a note warning her to stay out of room six.  And also a hole to hell in the basement.

Along with a sassy cat, an innocent hunk and an amorous French Canadian host, Claire must find a way to seal the hole to hell and deal with the problem in room six before she finds herself stuck to the site forever.

What I Liked:
  • The dialog in this story is hilarious.  From Claire to the Cat to Hell itself, everyone has snarky comment to make.  I found myself laughing out loud more than once.
  • While the plot followed traditional fantasy story lines, the twists and turns it took were new (to me) and very cleverly thought out.  The author didn't make any mistakes and there weren't any gaping plot holes to be found.
  • The author is just a good writer.  She introduced the rules of her world slowly and in a way that made sense to me as the reader.  It was fun to stumble across new concepts as the book progressed.
  • The guests that popped in and out of the guesthouse kept the story moving and brought moments of hilarity and absurdity to the plot.  A sexy musician vampire?  Werewolves?  A hideously annoying elderly neighbor?  Yes please!
  • Overall, this book was just fun.  And fine.  I liked the talking cat.

What Drove Me Nuts:
  • There wasn't much I disliked about the book, once I got over the thought of  talking cat.
  • The book was written in 1998, so the technology references may make some readers guffaw.
  • Don't get me started about the fashion.  It's just so.....Canadian.....
Rating:  Fantasy lovers, add this to your must read list!

Reviewed By:  Tami

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

"Snow Crash" By Neal Stephenson

I picked up this book at a used bookstore because a friend of mine has quoted little bits of it for the last several years. I saw it and thought, "Well, let's see what this is all about".

Summary: It is modern day, but certain trends have reached an extreme. The government has become a near-irrelevant entity as laws dissolved under the weight of corporate might. The US president is an obscure figure, unrecognizable to the masses. All valuable real estate has been claimed and developed by various corporations who have built up their franchises. There are franchises for roads, restaurants, neighborhoods, jails, police, schools, deliveries, you name it. People are citizens of their franchise, and register their vehicles that way. Messengers have dozens of barcode/visas that get scanned as they enter each different zone. Crime is suppressed by private security, the mafia run around with the word blazoned on their jackets and fear no one. Areas that are not profitable are franchise ghettos, where the poor are left to suffer in the worst possible conditions. This is also a world of high technology. Vehicles go faster, computers are more powerful, virtual reality is everywhere, tires adapt to the ground, cyber animals guard buildings and everything is being scanned by everyone.

In this world Hiro is a master hacker and swordsman, delivering pizza. He meets up with Y.T. a RadiKS Kourier who delivers high value packages by magnetically harpooning vehicles and trailing behind them on a skateboard. Hiro and Y.T. meet quite randomly on the job and soon get sucked into a high-stakes investigation. Hiro learns that one man has been spending the last several years preparing to take control of the whole world using an obscure idea he discovered in Sumarian texts.

This book explores the ancient and futuristic, solid reality and the virtual Metaverse, the common good and selfishness. It is really a perfect book for this era of human civilization as it is a commentary on where we are and where we might go while telling a really exciting story.

What I Liked: This is a very fast-paced book with a lot of action and investigation. The tech is fun to think about, since we are on the edge of making a lot of it. Hiro is a very compelling protagonist, as he is both highly-capable, and totally laid-back. There are a lot of cool ideas about how the brain could work like a computer that fuel the main story.

What I Didn't Like: [This area intentionally left blank]

Rating: Must read.

Also Read by this Author:  Nothing yet.

Reviewed by: Nick

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

"50 Shades of Grey" by E. L. James

I asked my then boyfriend (now husband) for "50 Shades of Grey" for my birthday when it first came out in 2011. Originally a Twilight fanfic, the book was the talk of my workplace and I was super eager to see what all the buzz was about.  I started reading it the night I got it.  And I finished it almost three years later.

Summary:  To help out her roommate, college senior Anastasia Steele finds herself interviewing the extraordinarily handsome and elusive CEO Christian Grey for her college newspaper.  Armed with a list of prepared questions, Ana stutters her way through the interview and doesn't give Mr. Grey another thought....until he propositions her in a way that both excites and terrifies her.  Will the innocent Ana take Mr. Grey up on his outrageous offer to change her entire life with the signing of a contract?

A Like/Loathe Response:  I had a really hard time looking past the terrible writing style for the first half of this book.  The dialogue was awkward (and I don't think it was intentional), the grammar sketchy and the overuse of commas drove me totally nuts...which is slightly shocking as I LOVE commas.  In fact, the writing was so bad I put the book down half way through and didn't pick it up for another three years.  But then three years rolled by and when I did pick it up, I was able to begin where I left off---right around the time Ana first pondered the (preposterous) contract Christian Grey proposed.  (Can we stop here for a second and recognize that the sole point of the contact was shock value for the reader?  It would have been much more interesting to find out the naughty details of Christian's sex life via dialogue or even action.  The contract was a cop-out by the author...an easy way to make the reader gasp and blush by the sheer volume of words.)

I found the second half of the book much more appealing than the first.  The characters had been established and I no longer had to read the boring and somewhat clumsy sections of the book that served no other purpose than to get the reader to the second half.  The second half of "50 Shades of Grey" had moments of honest to goodness humor, followed by dramatic but interesting emotional interludes, followed by scandalous sex scenes that aren't all that scandalous to anyone who's watched Cinemax after 10 pm or gone to a public school.  The characters personalities developed for better or worse, Ana learned some new tricks, and the book was much more fast paced.

What I Liked:  I thought the best parts of the book were the funny and flirty e-mails shared between Ana and Christian.  The emails felt like the most natural dialog in the book and showed the more interesting sides of both characters.

What Drove Me Nuts:  SO MUCH DRAMA.  It was exhausting and totally unnecessary.  Also, the writing.  And also some of the "sexy" scenes weren't all that sexy.

"Twilight" vs. "50 Shades":  My favorite part of reading "50 Shades of Grey" was comparing it to "Twilight."  Overall, I feel that "50 Shades of Grey" and "Twilight" are relatively equally matched, even though "Twilight" is much better written.  Although there were really only two, I thought the main characters in "50 Shades of Grey" were much more interesting than those in "Twilight" and the author didn't hide the fact that the entire point of the book was to find out whether Ana submits to Christian or not - there were no random action scenes thrown in at the end to give a plot to the book outside of the main characters' relationship.

Ana vs. Bella:  While both Anastasia Steele and Bella Swan are both naive and annoying in an almost dangerous way, I found that Ana actually had a personality that made me want to root for her.  Sure Ana doesn't always seem to know who she is, but at least she has a little self esteem.  She understands that she has some worth and treats Christian like an equal outside the bedroom.  It took four books for Bella to understand that she was worth something outside of her relationship to Edward (and I'm still convinced I didn't just make that up to make myself feel better reading the series.)  E. L. James gave her heroine a bit of backbone and that made her much more appealing to me, reading as an adult woman.

Now, this doesn't mean that I'm a member of the Bella-hater fan club.  I fully recognize that as a high school student with raging hormones and an unstable home life, it makes perfect sense for Bella to latch onto the steady and overwhelming feelings she has for Edward.  I even think Stephanie Meyer crafted Bella in an incredibly clever way in which teen girls and young women can easily imagine themselves in Bella's shoes. I'm just saying that as an adult, it makes me less irritated to read about an adult woman acting stupid than a teenager.  At least the adult understands that her actions will have life altering consequences.

Rating:  I'd give this book a chance, but I'd borrow it from a friend.  If you go into it with lower expectations and an open mind, you might not find yourself as let down as I initially was.

Will I Watch the Movie?:  Yes, when it's on Netflix instant, in the privacy of my own home, possibly with some franzia to help get me through it.

Also Read By This Author:  Nothing, but I'll borrow the next segment from my sister to see what happens next.

Reviewed By:  Tami