Staff Book Reviews
Ithaca is an Odyssey retelling, but told from the perspective of Odysseus' son, Telemachus. The first third of the book focuses on Telemachus' experiences on Ithaca up to the present day of the book. Odysseus has been gone for 16 years, and has been missing for eight, and other, strange men have started to live on Ithaca in hopes of becoming its new chief and marrying Penelope, Odysseus' wife. Telemachus eventually decides to take a journey to see Nestor on Pylos in order to find his father, and ends up travelling a little more extensively than he perhaps originally intended. In the next third of the book, we basically get the events of Odysseus' trip home from Troy as explained by Odysseus and a bard. The last third of the book follows Telmachus as he returns from his trip to find Odysseus, and then discovers that the man himself has come home.
The decision to retell the Odyssey from Telemachus' point of view was a great one, and it's those parts of the book that were, to me, the most successful. The book actually ends up being a great coming of age tale set against the backdrop of Greek mythology and culture. It made for an interesting read, and Telemachus' character and his relationship with his parents was flawed in a really genuine way. A+ for character development. However, the second third of the book, the sum up Odysseus' return journey bit, I could've done without. I read The Odyssey ages ago (in high school, like one does), but it's still enough of a pop culture reference (and yeah, I've read the Riordan books too, so that helps) that I knew the story already, and that part felt a little disjointed. I get why it was necessary, but ultimately, it harmed the narrative a bit. You are kind of pulled out of Telemachus' story to read the "best parts" version of Odysseus' journey, and it just felt rushed.
The Odysseus part aside, though, I really liked this book. I find myself liking it more and more the more I think about it. It's one of those books that stays with you for a while. If you are looking for a fantastical, gory, and ultimately very human coming of age tale, then this is for you. 4 stars.
Ever wonder what your grandmother might be up to in heaven? Or maybe why it is that there are some people who just give the best advice? BJ Novak, writer and star of The Office, explores these topics and much more in his refreshingly hilarious One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories. Tales run the gamut of the absurd to the seemingly mundane: from a peek inside a blind date with a warlord, to a boy who is not allowed to eat sugary name-brand cereals. Each story is almost like two sides of the same coin, all at once being achingly funny and heartbreakingly human. The collection, while as a whole is mostly always humorous, ebbs and flows with a sincerity that demonstrates Novak’s keen ability to not only write about human emotion, but to make the reader feel it as well. One More Thing shows that Novak’s writing is intelligent, his command of language sharp and his wry humor at its best.
It seems like a typical day on her small, icy planet when Kady breaks up with her boyfriend Ezra. Little does she know, hours later she'll save Ezra's life when a megacorporation attacks their planet. The survivors of the attack are picked up by a passing fleet and Ezra and Kady are separated. As the two teens are trained to fill the staffing gaps on the military fleet, Kady begins to notice that the commanders are hiding a virus on one of the transport vessels which puts the safety of the whole fleet at risk. Soon, Kady finds herself reaching out to Ezra in an attempt to gain more information on the effects of the virus.
Illuminae tells a great story with the right mix of humor, code speak, and action. A unique premise and the authors’ attention to detail lead to a well-developed sci-fi world. The excellent story is enhanced by the inventive format – the novel reads like an investigative report made up of IM conversations, journal entries, and scientific reports.
The interesting format allows for the authors to provide a variety of relatable perspectives. Even though they’re living in a galactic warzone, Ezra and Kady provide a realistic and often humorous picture of a complicated relationship. The authors manage to make their interactions feel realistic despite the fact that Ezra and Kady never inhabit the same physical space at any time in the book. While Ezra and Kady are excellent characters, Kaufman and Kristoff have developed a varied cast of secondary characters which provide humor and empathy to the story.
Illuminae will appeal to a variety of sci-fi fans. It includes elements of intergalactic warfare and intrigue similar to Star Wars, apocalyptic elements along the lines of The Fifth Wave, strong kids and teens as savior figures like Enders Game, and survival instincts and humor along the lines of The Martian. Pick up Illuminae for a funny, fascinating read!
Nick Hall has everything going for him: he's doing well in school, he's got a solid flirtation going with his crush (or...limerence as it were), and most importantly, he made the soccer travel team. And so, of course, everything starts to go wrong. His parents separate, he starts to get bullied and his best friend ends up on a soccer team 30 miles away.
Booked is absolutely in no way the type of book I would normally pick up, but despite that, I thought it was fantastic. It's a sports fiction novel written in verse neither of which are my thing, but man, I get why Crossover won that Newbery if it was anything like this. In very few words, Alexander manages to develop complex characters, create humor, and develop and subsequently neatly (a little too neatly, perhaps, but hey, it is a book for kids) tie up several plot lines. Oh! And the words! There is a fun little subplot in which Nick's dad wrote a dictionary, and it leads to some really awesome word play. I also learned a few new fun vocabulary words to throw around.
Anyway, my final thought is really just...wow. I'm impressed. I'll definitely be booktalking this one. And even though, like I said, it's not my thing AT ALL, I'll probably read Crossover, Alexander's other book. 5 stars.
Amory Ames has left her philandering husband for a vacation by the sea with her erstwhile fiance on the pretense of talking his younger sister out of marrying her dastardly fiance. After a day of vacation, the dastardly fiance is murdered and the erstwhile fiance is suspect #1. Amory is convinced her old fiance is innocent, and works to clear his name.
At first, I was not at all sold on this book. The beginning is very slow and weighed down by constant descriptions of the sartorial choices of the many characters. The main character also initially comes off as a bit of a prickly doormat. Fortunately, about halfway through the book, the pacing picks up, the story gets really interesting, and our main character gets much less annoying. Her relationship with her husband, however, never ceases to be annoying because...did people not talk to each other in 1930s England? It was an unapologetically unhealthy relationship that was ultimately frustrating to read and was left (purposefully) unresolved at the end.
I don't read a ton of mysteries, but this one ended up being a lot of fun! Its kind of like an old school mystery where there is a cast of characters/suspects in one setting and you KNOW one of them did it...but which one? Based on what other readers have said, it's Agatha Christie-esque. I was able to guess the "who" but not the "why", and the book ended up being entertaining enough that I immediately checked out the sequel, Death Wears a Mask. I'd recommend it to mystery lovers who like their mysteries with a historical setting and a touch of fashion. 3 stars.
After the 18th amendment passed, magic became illegal. Shine, an addictive hallucinogen created as a by-product of sorcery, is the main reason behind the prohibition. So, of course, a seedy underworld of gangsters trafficking in shine immediately springs up, and it is embroiled in this underworld that our two main protagonists, Joan and Alex, accidentally and not-so-accidentally find themselves. As they are both sorcerers, Joan and Alex must figure out how to use their sorcery to survive the crime syndicate and it's machinations.
This is a fun fantasy read that is fairly original in it's premise and setting, with likable and believable characters. The premise does most of the heavy lifting, as gangs set in the 1920s trafficking magic gives Kelly lot to work with. She doesn't disappoint. The gangsters are pretty fearsome and the body count ratchets up quickly. The pacing is tight, and the magic is both deadly and beautiful. Joan is a performer, and the descriptions of the performances themselves are somewhat bewitching.
I did have a few problems with the book. First, while the two main characters were fleshed out and developed, almost none of the other characters got any development, and those that did were then basically ignored for the rest of the book. So when the secondary characters started dying, I didn't really care all that much. And then there's the relationship between Joan and Alex. I didn't mind it at first, but it did that thing that relationships in books often do of getting too serious too fast. It's not instalove, but it's instalove's cousin or something. I also felt that aspects of the 20s were wasted on this book - I wanted more flappers, insane clothing, and awesome music. We really only got the gangsters and the cigarette smoking.
For all it's problems, this fantasy novel was ultimately a great read. The ending was pitch perfect, and left the door open for a sequel. I'd recommend it to light fantasy readers looking for something without a ton of substance that is endlessly entertaining and a little different. I'd probably give it something like 3.5 stars, but since that's not an option, we'll go with 4. I quite liked it.
John Krakauer, author of Under the Banner of Heaven, Into the Wild, and Into Thin Air, brings his literary non-fiction style to addressing the topic of rape and sexual assault at the University of Montana, which is located in the titular city, Missoula. Krakauer examines the assaults of five young women with ties to this university during the period of 2008-2012. These case studies examine the culture of sexual assault and how these cases are dealt with by the criminal justice system and the university. Readers should be warned that this book does have some graphic content due to the nature of this topic.
Readers of Krakauer who enjoyed Under the Banner of Heaven will find a similar style of reporting found in this work. Krakauer champions the stories of the five women whose assaults he details as he works to debunk many of the myths surrounding the topic. Most interesting to this reviewer is the research that he presents that not many men commit sexual assault, but those that do tend to be repeat offenders. And many of these perpetrators fail to even realize that their actions are criminal.
Krakauer thoroughly takes to task members of the criminal justice system who oversee the charging and prosecution of these crimes. Other reviewers have found his treatment of those officials to be harsh and one-sided, claiming this to be a departure from Krakauer’s normally unbiased reporting style. This reviewer found that the critical lens Krakauer uses when discussing the many missteps of the criminal justice system to be warranted. He also is critical of the football culture of the area that strives to protect its athletes even if they have harmed others. We see how university officials try to navigate bringing offenders to justice in this type of culture. This book is really more about the culture of sexual assault than it is about Missoula. While it is an emotionally challenging read, it is a worthwhile read and it will hopefully bring more attention to sexual assault and ways that we as a society can prevent these crimes.
Mary Roach covers military science in a way that seemingly only she can: by covering the weird, little known aspects like genitalia injuries, shark repellent, military fashion, and, of course, diarrhea. The result is an interesting, engaging and very accessible non-fiction read.
I listened to this book, and I think that was probably a mistake. Mary Roach tends to jump around from topic to topic even within a larger topic (in a chapter about shark repellent you may jump from sharks to polar bears pretty abruptly), which can be fun to read, but was hard to listen to. Zone out for a minute, and you'll find yourself completely lost. My listening enjoyment was also hampered by the insane amount of acronyms used by the military. I had a lot of "wait, what does that stand for again?" moments, and in an audiobook, there's not really a way to go back and check, and its not like I'm going to google whilst driving. Oh yeah, and the narrator was not to my taste. Her voice just didn't do it for me.
But overall, it managed to be both informative and funny which is not an oft found combination. I really enjoyed it, and I'll be booktalking this one in the fall.
I’ve been following Sam Sykes on twitter for a while, and given my affinity for both well-crafted fantasy worlds and action-adventure stories, it was only a matter of time before I picked up a copy of The City Stained Red, the first book in Sam’s Bring Down Heaven series.
At almost 650 pages, The City Stained Red is a doorstopper of a book, but a fast, fun, vicious read. The book follows Lenk, an adventurer that some readers may recognize from Sykes’ previous series, The Aeon’s Gate Trilogy (though reading that series first is by no means a prerequisite for Bring Down Heaven). Lenk has finally decided that he’s done with killing, and wants to put aside his sword and pick up what he believes will be a normal life in the trade hub city of Cier’Djall. He and his friends, Denaos the thief, young wizard Dreadaeleon, khoshicht (Sykes’ clever take on elves) archer Kataria, healer/priestess Asper, and dragonman Gariath have killed scores of people and monsters. With the money owed to them for their services, they could happily retire from their violent lives. However, the man who owes them is not so easily found.
Cier’Djall is a massive, sprawling city, and the wealthy who rule over it have made their gold by selling silk produced by enormous spiders. However, the beautiful silk-draped spire that towers over the city leaves long shadows. In darker corners of the city, some of the poor are disappearing, and the ruling fashas may be to blame. Two rival churches seek to position their armies within the city, and tensions are running high as negotiations between them loom. Then, there’s the small matter of the local thieves guild and their ongoing conflict with a new but powerful cult that claims to have demons backing them. This is reality in the city where Lenk hopes to find Miron Evenhands, the priest at whose behest they have been doing what they do best. Cier’Djall is a bonfire piled high, drenched in oil, and awaiting a spark, and Lenk and his friends are unwittingly bringing lit torches through the gates.
The City Stained Red takes a page from A Song of Ice and Fire by presenting chapters from the perspectives of each member of Lenk’s band of adventurers. After arriving in Cier’Djall, they split up to try to located Miron, each using their unique skills and connections to make their way through the city. Denaos has connections from his previous life in the thieves guild, the Jackals. Dreadaeleon seeks the assistance of the Venarium, the wizard’s alliance. Asper, a follower of the same church as Miron, travels to the various temples in the city. Kataria finds herself in Shichttown, a slum where the non-humans try to live out of the way of the fiercely racist upper class. Gariath attempts to gather information from another dragonman who works as a bodyguard for one of the fashsas. Lenk is trying to cope with the fact that his pursuit of retirement may lose him the closest thing he’s ever known to a family. None of them are remotely ready for what they find.
After a footwar between the Jackals and the Khovura cult spills from the back alleys into the streets, every faction with an interest in controlling the silk trade comes out of their corners swinging, and Lenk and company can do little more than hope to survive.
I absolutely loved this book. Sykes blends dark humor and trope deconstruction beautifully. I’m already reading the sequel, The Mortal Tally, because I couldn’t wait to see what happens to these folks next. Reading about these characters is like watching my college Dungeons and Dragons group in action. There’s violence and bloodshed, but also fervent emotion. It’s a wonderful thing.
Lady Helen has lived almost her entire life in the shadow of her dead, treasonous mother. Because her mother did some shady stuff before she died, Helen has had to be the perfect demur lady, no small task for a quick witted woman in the Regency period. But as new information comes to light surrounding her mother's life and death, Lady Helen realizes that her mother had magical powers...that she passed along to her daughter. Soon, Lady Helen finds herself pulled into the dark underbelly of London as she works with the Dark Days Club to try to keep Londoners safe from a group of demons.
I really enjoyed the beginning of this book. There's a lot of world building, and Lady Helen is a very likable character who I think behaves in ways that make sense given the time period. There's a great build up to the reveal of the demons, and the mystery of Helen's mother and her powers unfolds very slowly and deliciously. The problem arises when the demons themselves are revealed. While I'll give Goodman points for originality with the demons and how they interact with humans, really, as villains go, they were pretty low-stakes and unfortunately kind of lame. I don't know, I mean, most of them follow rules and don't do anything bad, but they are hated by humans in the know just by virtue of the fact that they are human parasites, which really, isn't their fault. Things get a little more high stakes by the end, but I really couldn't make myself care. I actually put the book down for a week or so because I wasn't dying to know what happens, which is pretty rare for me.
I liked the setting, world-building, and the characters, and would maybe give the next book in the series a shot as the villains get a bit more villainous and less lame by the end. That and Goodman can write. She also clearly did her Regency homework. Overall though, for me this was just ok. 2 stars.
Peter Grant is part of the Special Assessment Unit, a police group in London that is called in to investigate the weirder cases. And the first case is pretty weird - it seems like there are a few cars in London that have developed a murderous bent. Grant and crew do their best to figure out what is going on...before someone else finds themself dead at the hands of their car.
This was really fun! The mystery was different from anything I've ever read, the world building happened quickly but thoroughly, and the characters were likable. While not spectacular, the art was pretty and made the story easy to follow. Oh, and major bonus, the characters were diverse! I liked this one enough that I just put the regular novel Peter Grant books on hold, and I'll definitely be checking out all future graphic novel installments. Harry Dresden fans, check this series out ASAP!
This is the perfect summer book! It is a feel-good character centered book. A.J. Fikry is a young widower who isn't coping very well with the death of his wife. He owns and operates a bookstore that he seems not to care about, and is very judgmental about the books he sells and reads. Then one day his life changes when a baby is left for him to care for. A.J. transforms. He loves the baby and gives his all to her. He develops friendships and even falls in love again. But with all good books, there is a little twist! You will have to read it to find out! I highly recommend this book as a vacation book or if you just need a change of pace from what you usually read.
Every year in different countries in Erdas, children of the age of ~12 get a chance to call a spirit animal - an animals that will be attached to them forever, and gives them the chance to join a group of folks called the "green cloaks" who use their spirit animals to protect Erdas from threats: especially the conquerors. Our four protagonists all call spirit animals - but they aren't just any spirit animals. They are four of the fallen: spirit animals that helped the green cloaks during the last time the conquerors threatened Erdas. As the conquerors begin to attack Erdas anew, the four children must pick a side and learn to fight.
This was quite fun! It was a little generic, and the writing was a little simple, but hey, this IS a book for middle grade readers. I listened to it as I was running, and I've continued listening to the series on long runs as it is easy to follow even when you zone out, its extremely entertaining and at times it manages to be quite clever. It also seems like no one side (green cloaks vs. conquerors) is completely good or evil, and I appreciate that kind of complexity.
Is your family going on a road trip this summer? This would be a great choice to listen to, as I would think the material would be appropriate for all ages. The narration, while not fantastic, is perfectly serviceable. If you want a great middle grade series for your kids, this could be the perfect one to start them with - the entire series has been published, and there are like 10 books in it, so it should keep them busy for a while. That, and it's pretty captivating from the start. Or hey, if, like me, you like to listen to books on long runs, this series is perfect for that sort of thing.
Greta Stuart has been a hostage for most of her life. Well, technically, she's one of the "children of peace". You see, long ago, after the world was ravaged by the effects of global warming, an AI named Talis put himself in control, and decided to almost completely eradicate war by having the leader of each country turn over their heir to be a "child of peace" until the child reached the age of 18. Should that country go to war, the child will be killed. Greta's nation, the Pan Pols (Canada) are about to go to war over water, and Greta knows that her death is imminent.
This book is hard to explain. Basically, the world-building is pretty detailed, but not without some holes (many of which are explained by the end of the book), and most of the first half of the book was spent explaining the world that Greta and her fellow hostages lived in. Also, Greta is the proverbial ice princess - she is fairly stoic, even in her own head, and so I didn't think she was very likable for the first half of the book.
However, as the book progresses, Greta really comes into her own. Her stoicism and propriety have given her a certain amount of power in regards to the fellow children of peace, and it's really fun to see her step up and wield that power. And then, stuff goes terribly, horribly wrong, and the pacing and intrigue of the story really pick up.
I'd give the first half of the book 2 stars, and the second half 5. So, over all, like a 3.5 or something. By the end, I was loving it. If you like really complex dystopian novels (this is more like 1984 than Divergent), then this one is not to be missed.
An insightful look at intercultural conflicts in the medical field. This book follows the case of a young Hmong girl named Lia Lee, the daughter of refugees, who presented with epilepsy in her infancy. The author, Anne Fadiman, follows both the parents and the doctors involved in the case, interviewing the key parties and untangling the miscommunication that led to Lia’s eventual brain death. The author is respectful to both sides and manages to explore the conflict that arises over the medical care without placing blame, instead asking what both sides viewed as good medicine, what they hoped to accomplish, and why they were unable to communicate their ideas to one another and agree on how to handle Lia’s treatment. The edition I read also had a helpful afterword in which the author updated readers on where the people she interviewed are now, some 20 years later, and how the hospital in Merced (and other hospitals throughout the country) are starting to change how they train their staff to interact with a multicultural community that might have very different ideas about what good medical care looks like. This book always makes top non-fiction lists, and now that I’ve finally gotten around to reading it I can say that for me it lived up to the hype.
This was a very disappointing read. The novel follows Alison, who was the sole survivor of the massacre of her family when she was a teenager. She has since moved to London, changed her name, and tried to put her past behind her, but a wedding invitation from her boyfriend’s ex draws her back to the community she thought she’d left behind. The book came well-recommended, and I went into it expecting a better story than the one I got. This was sold to me as a psychological thriller that follows Alison’s attempt to investigate the massacre, which had been treated as a murder-suicide committed by her father. Unfortunately, the characterization was clumsy, the writing was poor, and the ending, without spoiling anything, was badly explained and unsatisfying. I came to hate every character in the book, and by the end of it I was reading out of a sense of obligation rather than any actual interest in the plot (if you’re paying any attention, you’ll figure the ‘mystery’ out an agonizingly long time before our oblivious protagonist catches on).
On Such a Full Sea opens in a futuristic Baltimore (“B-Mor”). The protagonist, Fan, is the descendant of refugees from a Chinese city whose population was transplanted to America to work in fisheries after the complete environmental collapse of their homeland. The US at this time is in crisis, with limited resources divided unevenly among the heavily stratified classes. There’s a very rare chance for children to be “promoted” into the upper classes via a national exam, as indeed Fan’s brother was, but most of the country lives in labor colonies and has their career set at birth -- in the government-controlled regions, that is. Outside the carefully controlled urban production centers, there’s nothing but lawless wilderness across most of the country (the so-called “open counties”).
The plot kicks off when Fan’s boyfriend (and father of her unborn child) goes missing -- possibly taken by government officials -- and she sets out into the wild open counties outside of B-Mor to search for him, encountering a bizarre, violent world. Fan is a bit flat -- in fact, nearly all of the characters are -- but what really stood out was the way the story was narrated. It’s told not from Fan’s perspective but from the point of view of the community back in B-Mor, always speaking as “we”. The narrator relates to us the legend that has grown up around Fan since her escape, speculating on what it was about her and this incident that sparked so much fascination -- and briefly protest -- in an otherwise defeated community. What we “learn” about Fan’s adventures is thus largely a compilation of the stories that have grown up around her since she left B-Mor. Her characterization makes a bit more sense when you think of her as a folk hero, but some readers may dislike the lack of insight into what she’s thinking or feeling. We move back and forth between events in B-Mor and episodes in Fan's search for her boyfriend, which (despite the weaknesses I mentioned) were inventive and compelling.
It’s not an entirely original setting, and the narration style was a bit (okay, a lot) off-putting at first, but the writing itself was beautiful and I ended up enjoying it much more than I had expected. If you like dystopian fiction, I’d recommend giving this book a try.
A very heavy, difficult book to get through, in part because it was written in dialect, which always takes some getting used to, but largely because it was so relentlessly depressing that I couldn’t read it for too long of a stretch. A Brief History of Seven Killings tells the fictionalized story of the (factual) 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley, referred to throughout simply as “The Singer”. Told from a staggering number of different perspectives, ranging from the young would-be assassins themselves, to the unemployed daughter of a middle-class family pretending to be pregnant with Marley’s child in an attempt to get out of the country, to a CIA agent assigned to keep communism from spreading to Jamaica, it’s a grueling, violent read, but there’s a lot worth hearing. The story begins with the assassination attempt, then jumps forward to sections set in the 1980s and 1990s, with close attention to Jamaica’s changing political scene and the lasting mark that violence leaves on the characters. The writing is strong and Marlon James does an excellent job juggling the huge cast (though if you’re like me you’ll probably have to refer back to the character list provided at the beginning of the book at least a few times). I don’t know if “enjoyed” is the right word, but I felt like I got a lot out of it, and it was certainly a deserving winner of the Man Booker Prize. I will say that the word “brief” in the title is a bit of a stretch -- it weighs in at 688 pages. Highly recommended for fans of historical fiction.
I started out highly annoyed by this book. It seemed so formulaic. But then the main character took off running, so to say. I found myself riveted by her ability to survive, stay true to herself, and uncover the truth. But then I ended up annoyed again by the formulaic ending. It was the opposite of a crap sandwich.
I can relate to the subject matter of this book as I live in Colorado and my dad has dementia. I fully enjoyed the storyline and the writing style. The characters and situations were realistically portrayed and the subject matter was not in any way sugar coated. I actually expected it to be more of a heartwarming tale of a small town pulling together to help the main character and his father. But that's not how this book rolls, and I'm glad for it. But the part of me that needed a happy ending gives this book 4 stars instead of 5.