Tag Archives: 2.5 stars

Books About Books

I was lovingly describing Ruiz Zafón’s Shadow of the Wind to a friend the other day. She seemed a bit unimpressed with my elevator pitch for one of my favorite books, and said, “You really like books about books.”

This is very true. I love books about books. I have a GoodReads shelf devoted to them. According to this list, I’ve read six books about books this year. I push them up to the top of my reading list.  BookRiot runs an irregular series called Genre Kryptonite, in which readers discuss genres or tropes they have a weak spot for. Books about books are one of my biggest genre kryptonites. Today, I’m going to write mini-reviews of the four I’ve read most recently.

Also, you should read Shadow of the Wind.

84, Charing Cross Road/The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street

book cover: 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene HanffAuthor: Helene Hanff
Rating: 5 stars/3.5 stars
Genre: Epistolary/Memoir
Length: 97 pages/144 pages

The very slim volume of 84, Charing Cross Road has been sitting on my bookshelves for two years, ever since a lovely book friend gave me her copy when she was moving and told me all book lovers should read it. The book sits on my shelf at eye level, and has been calling my name ever since. “Look at me!” it called. “I’m very short. I’m charming. I’m a book for book lovers.”

I finally picked up 84, Charing Cross Road last week, and it was wonderful. It is a collection of letters exchanged over twenty years between Helene Hanff, a script writer living in New York city, and Frank Doel, a bookseller at a used bookstore in London (located at 84, Charing Cross Road). Helene, who has a specific taste in books, is witty and sarcastic and overdramatic at times. Her outlandish letters are a stark contrast to Frank’s responses: formal, polite, and reserved.

The two start off corresponding after Hanff begins ordering books from the store. However, hearing about the food shortages and rations in post-WWI UK, Helene begins sending the bookstore baskets of gifts, including many hard-to-find items. A friendship slowly grows between Helene and Frank, conducted solely through letters. It’s understated and real and heart-warming.

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is a sequel of sorts to 84, Charing Cross Road. The publication of 84, Charing Cross Road makes it possible for Helene visit the UK. The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is the journal she kept during the trip. While it is nice to see Helene finally visit England, it seems much more self-aware and planned than 84, Charing Cross Road, which consisted of letters that weren’t written for anyone else to read.

5 stars to 84, Charing Cross Road and 3.5 stars to The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.

The Moment of Everything

book cover: The Moment of Everything by Shelly KingAuthor: Shelly King
Rating: 2.5 stars
Genre: Fiction
Length: 288 pages

The Moment of Everything had, well, everything going for it. A young woman loses her job and reinvents herself while working in a bookstore. There’s quirky bookstore workers and a cranky bookstore cat. She discovers the record of a romance between two unknown bookstore customers who don’t know each other, but left notes for each other in the margins of an old, used book.

I’ll start off by saying this is a fine book. It reminded me a bit of the set-up for Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (another book about books that you must read if you haven’t yet): an unemployed young tech worker/graphic designer in Silicon Valley looking for some sort of direction in life discovers something unusual or secret while working in a bookstore. It’s a perfectly enjoyable book.

Yet, the book just didn’t quite ring true for me, especially the characters. I didn’t really click with Maggie, the main character, or bought into her relationship with Rahjit. And to my disappointment, the romance blossoming between two characters who only know each other through the notes they leave in the margins of the book turned out to be a minor plot point.

2.5 stars.

I received an advanced copy of The Moment of Everything from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

book cover: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle ZevinAuthor: Gabrielle Zevin
Rating: 4.5 stars
Genre: Fiction
Length: 260 pages

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry reads like a giant celebration of books and reading and stories and second chances, along with a good helping of little book/publishing jokes and references.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry wasn’t what I was expecting at all. The premise of the book is this: A.J. Fikry runs a bookstore. He’s irascible. He doesn’t much like people. His store is struggling. And he isn’t doing so well personally since the death of his wife, who kept the bookstore running and also was the people-person of the pair.  Also, he’s a bit of a book snob. Here he describes his tastes:

“I do not like postmodernism, postapocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magic realism. I rarely respond to supposedly clever formal devices, multiple fonts, pictures where they shouldn’t be—basically, gimmicks of any kind. I find literary fiction about the Holocaust or any other major world tragedy to be distasteful—nonfiction only, please. I do not like genre mash-ups à la the literary detective novel or the literary fantasy. Literary should be literary, and genre should be genre, and crossbreeding rarely results in anything satisfying. I do not like children’s books, especially ones with orphans, and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult. I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages. I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, movie tie-in editions, novelty items, and—I imagine this goes without saying—vampires.”

The two things happen. His valuable edition of Tamarlane by Edgar Allen Poe, which is meant to fund his early retirement, is stolen. And a mysterious package arrives on his doorstep. The contents of this “mysterious package” are completely different than what I imagined, and it sent the story somewhere very different than I had imagined. I had read a bunch of reviews, so kudos to everyone for keeping that under wraps.

The books was loads of fun to read, as well as being a heart-warming tale. 4.5 stars.

P.S. If the judgmental quote about reading annoys you, rest assured A.J. does not feel the same about books by the end.

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For Logophiles or Technophobes

book cover for The Word Exchange by Alena GraedonTitle: The Word Exchange
Author: Alena Graedon
Rating: 2.5 Stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Length: 384 pages

Verdict: The Word Exchange has a wonderful premise with a less-than-wonderful execution, hindered by overly pretentious characters.

Synopsis: Twenty-something Anana Johnson’s life is like most people her age: she works for her father at the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL), is more addicted to her Meme (an evolved smart phone that can do things like call cabs, order food when we’re hungry, or remind us of words without us telling it to do so) than her father is comfortable with, and is trying to get over a recent break-up with her former boyfriend, Max.

In this near future, the Meme has all but replaced the printed word. Words themselves have been commodified on the Word Exchange, which address that tip-of-the-tongue sensation by providing the word you’ve forgotten for a small fee. Our technology is smarter than ever, and there are rumors of a new device on the way: the Nautilus, which will be even more connected to our brains than ever before.

Of course, there are some people who opt out of all this technology, such as Anana’s father, Doug. Editor of NADEL, anti-meme, and a member of the Diachronic Society. NADEL is one of the last dictionaries to hold out against being purchased by Synchronic for use on the Word Exchange.

Shortly before the publication of the 3rd Edition of NADEL, Doug disappears, leaving only a few obscure clues before, including a code name for Ana he said he’d use if he was in trouble. To make things worse, something called Word Flu is springing up among Meme users–people are replacing common words with nonsense words without even realizing it.

Review:

The Word Exchange is an example of a book with such an amazing premise–words, dictionaries, books, technology, the WORD FLU. It’s like the book was written for me. However, what the book has in a great premise falls flat on actual delivery. I really had to push myself to get through The Word Exchange. In fact, if there wasn’t the promise that the Oxford English Dictionary was going to be involved somehow at the end, I probably would have given up. (My love for the OED is deep and lasting, what can I say?)

Of course, there were some parts of The Word Exchange that I enjoyed. The story is told from two points-of-view, Ana’s and Bart’s (her father’s protegee who harbors a crush on Ana). Ana’s chapters were more interesting to me. She was easier to relate to and had a more convincing character voice, especially when she was talking about her relationship with her father, who was another great character. The near-future world Graedon builds is really interesting. And, once the Word Flu storyline finally started moving, I found the story and the fear of a virus that can spread through language equal parts fascinating and terrifying. Also, Graedon obviously dedicated a lot of thought to word choice and stylistics, and when it works, the writing is great. When it doesn’t, it feels a bit like the author spent a bit too much time flipping through the thesaurus.

However, I really, really, really struggled with Bart’s chapters. He was a completely insufferable and snobbish. Also, I don’t care about Hegel. I just don’t. The first half of his chapters were like a combined unrequited love letter to Ana and Hegel written in the worst academic prose possible, and the second half were a struggle because Bart gets a bad case of the word flu and you can hardly tell what he is trying to write.

Overall, The Word Exchange is built on some really intriguing concepts, but it missed a lot of opportunities to be great. The story does get better in the second half of the book, earning it a solid 2.5 star rating.

I received an advanced copy of The Word Exchange from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Bone Season

To tell you I was disappointed in this would be an understatement. I think it’s pretty safe to say that the publishers are pushing this book like crazy. First book in a seven book series? Intriguing! Steampunk? Yes, please! London? Do you even have to ask? So what is so bad about it?

Well…let me start out with saying I didn’t hate it. In fact, it got a lot better once the plot actually got going. I think one of my biggest problems lies with the fact that I constantly got the impression that the author was trying SO hard to be cool it hurt. She is very young (born in 1991) and this is her first book, so I get it. Pressure so on and so forth. The slang just about killed me. There is a glossary in the back of the book that gives the slang and the meanings. There is a little paragraph at the top of the glossary stating that she kind of modeled it on slang from the London underground and blah blah blah. Que the trying too hard. It’s a nice idea, but it was kind of overkill. I don’t need you to shorten clairvoyant to voyant or clairvoyance to voyance. However, if you choose to shorten these words then stick with it! There can be no waffling back and forth between slang and not slang or I will just be annoyed.

This is also a book for adults, yet it reads like every YA book I’ve ever read. Now, I love YA books so this shouldn’t count against it, but it does a little. This is supposed to be a book for adults and it doesn’t feel like it. It just felt like an extended YA book because it was 452 pages long! I wanted to be surprised, but it all kind of felt cliche because I knew who the love interest would be and what was going unfold with her Rephaite keeper. I just felt kind of sad the whole time.

POSITIVE STARTING HERE (kind of):
Ok, I feel like this post is a bit doom and gloom and perhaps that isn’t fair. Maybe my expectations were too high. So be it. I do have some positive things to say. Once the story really got rolling I couldn’t put it down. I had to know WHERE the story would end. I was still really let down overall, but the plot picked up and it stayed pretty exciting. The author did a great job building a world for these characters and giving everyone a distinct personality. I never felt as though they strayed from the character she was setting up and that was nice to see.

Now, will I read the other books in this too long series? That is debatable. I waffled over what to rate this for so long I can’t really decide how I feel about it. I will decide once book 2 comes out and perhaps I will give this series another chance.

2.5/5 stars

American Gods


http://www.neilgaiman.com/works/Books/American+Gods/
Sonya has risen from her library school grave (aka graduated) and will actually have time to review books now!! 🙂 With that out of the way, let’s hear about American Gods:
I would have given American Gods 2 stars, but the last 100 pages were much better so 2.5 it is. I don’t want to say I can’t like this book because I think in a different context I would. I started this book during the break between summer and fall classes thinking it would make for a nice relaxing read. However, American Gods is a fairly hefty novel in terms of content, so I think if I had been in a mood for something deep, I would have liked it more. What I really wanted was something fluffy, and I thought American Gods would be a fast-paced mystery-sci fi novel. It wasn’t. Since its also character-focused it moves less quickly; Gaiman takes his time developing the characters. What I really wanted, though, was a fast-paced fantasy novel! I mean the cover has a highway with lightning on it! 
American Gods was recommended to me by Nox and Zelda as being one of Gaiman’s best. I loved The Graveyard Book and Coraline, so I thought I might delve into some adult fiction, and American Godscame highly recommended. Plus, Gaiman’s concept for the book seems intriguing and original. The concept of gods as real manifestations was interesting let alone the concept of “American” gods such as media, the internet, and television. The beginning caught my attention but after Shadow and Wednesday set off to rope more gods into Wednesday’s plan, I just lost interest. The vignettes about how the gods came to America that are scattered throughout I found distracting. The last 100 pages or so were actually quite good, but I often found myself counting how many pages to the end of the chapter and to the end of the book. I just wanted to be done with it so I could go back to reading Gone with the Wind (which is wonderful!). Perhaps I might try a different adult novel by Gaiman and see if it goes better. Any recommendations?!

Bellman & Black

Bellman & Black‘ is the new novel by Diane Setterfield, author of ‘The Thirteenth Tale‘. The story opens with the incident around which the entire plots twists. While his three friends watch, William Bellman makes a perfect shot with his catapult, striking and killing a rook in a faraway tree. While his friends are impressed, the day is mostly forgotten and William grows. William’s work ethic, problem-solving attitude, people skills, and ability to learn things quickly serves him well, and he becomes an extraordinarily successful businessman and industrialist. He also falls in love and has a family.

However, as his star rises, there always seems to be a rook around. People around him start dying, and at all the funerals Bellman attends, there is a strange man in black watching. Eventually, tragedy strikes closer to home, and Bellman makes a deal with ‘Black’. Professionally, his success continues, but things are never the same after that.

The official blurb for the book calls ‘Bellman & Black’ a “heart-thumpingly perfect ghost story, beautifully and irresistibly written, its ratcheting tension exquisitely calibrated line by line.” While the book was well-written, it was less eerie than I wanted. I expected an atmospheric book, with a slightly gothic feel (along the lines of Carlos Ruiz Zafon or Erin Morgenstern). I did not feel any “ratcheting tension” at all. The story was slow-moving and quotidian. Setterfield scattered references to rooks in the background of Bellman’s life, watching him, but it was obvious from the beginning where the story was going. There was no sense of mystery, and the supernatural was barely present.

‘Bellman & Black’ was very character-driven, particularly by the main character, William Bellman. I found Will a bit dull. Most of the book was devoted to his business decisions–becoming head of the mill, arranging for food for his workers, constructing his mourning emporium, doing paperwork, setting business goals. There was too much detail about his work life, and he didn’t have an interesting character to carry the business details.

Yet, I loved the last 20 pages. In the last 20 pages, the atmosphere, the emotion, the mystery that was missing for the book finally appeared. Had the entire book been written like the end, it would have lived up to its description. In fact, I think ‘Bellman & Black’ might have worked better as a short story or novella.

I’ve only heard wonderful things about Setterfield’s first book, ‘The Thirteenth Tale,’ and I still intend to go back and read it someday. ‘Bellman & Black’ might be a good book for people who like fantasy or supernatural without a lot of gothic embellishment and flowery language. People interested slow-growing family dramas may also be interested as well.

2.5 stars.

I received an ARC of Bellman & Black through NetGalley. Bellman & Black will be released on November 5th, 2013.

Scent of Darkness

I really wanted to like this more than I did. I was told to read this book by someone that has very similar book taste to my own and so I thought I would love it. I think this was just a bit weird for me. I liked the idea behind the story but not really the story itself. Fragrance + a grandmother who is a master of scent = super special scent that can change your life. Neat! Well…maybe not to so neat.

I think one of my main problems was that I didn’t really like the main character. Eva was just kind of lame. She was ok but I didn’t really root for her. She got herself into these messes and then seemed so blah. I didn’t care about her love life or her for that matter. I did like the young boy that kept hanging around her and wanted to help her. I would read his story.

The love was lame. It didn’t feel real or passionate. It just existed and you were expected to care about it but I didn’t care at all. Both her potential love interests are lame and not worth the time she was putting into them. She didn’t really know them and the way she met her first love interest was just weird. “Hey, I’m going to go clean out my dead grandmother’s house! *sees boy* What are you doing here?” “Studying….sorry….it’s just quiet in here. I liked you grandmother. Everyone did.” What the hell? Could she not have thought of something less weird that a med student studying in a dead ladies house?

The scent. I understand that she doesn’t know what is happening or how much to read into feelings of attraction towards her but she wanted to get caught up in a disaster because she gets herself in a big ol’ mess and then whines about it. C’mon Eva, you knew what was going to happen and you let it happen anyway.

It also pissed me off that she just let’s the artist use her. I know I said she wanted to get in those sticky situations but really. She just lets him get by being a flipping crazy person when really she should have kicked his ass and said leave me alone. I get it, the scent drove him crazy and he would do anything to get it. Even if it meant killing her to put her blood in his paint. Um…ew. I want that to be cool! It’s gross and interesting and I want to like that but my disdain towards the characters is preventing me from liking that.

I say if you’re really curious give it a whirl but you really could just as well skip this one. At least it’s only 240 pages? I rated this 3 stars on goodreads but would actually give it 2.5. It was creative and I thought it really felt like dark magic and the scent thing was cool. I also believed the atmosphere of New Orleans. This was written well and I would try another book by this author.

Newbery Award Winners–the 1920s

Over a year ago, Colby Sharp and Mr. Schu started the Newbery Medal Reading Challenge, encouraging people to read all of the books that have won the Newbery Medal (awarded every year since 1922  “to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.“) I love many of the Newbery winners, so I decided to accept the challenge.

Here are some of my favorite Newbery winners, as an example:

    

When I started, I was four or five books behind. I just checked. Colby Sharp and Mr. Schu recently reviewed Kira-Kira, the 2005 winner. What about me? Oh, well, I’m happy to announce I’ve finished all of the winners from the 1920s!

Which isn’t even a full decade of winners.

Why has it taken me so long to read eight children’s books? Because, honestly, the early winners just aren’t very good. I’m not an expert on children’s literature, but a lot has changed in attitudes and the style of writing for children since the Newbery Medal was first awarded.

So, in order to spare you all from early Newbery-induced boredom, here is a brief summary of what you’re missing (or not).

The Story of Mankind
by Hendrik Willem van Loon
Winner of the 1922 Newbery Medal
0 Stars

The Newbery Medal gets an inauspicious beginning with a non-fiction book: The Story of Mankind. The version I read was 704 pages. Now, I usually like history. But reading this was like having a very intelligent but condescending grandfather sit you down on a rainy day and give you a seven-hour speech on history, at time giving little asides on how now we should understand how important history is and why would we ever want to read a novel (gasp) when history is so interesting.

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle
by Hugh Lofting
Winner of the 1923 Newbery Medal
2.5 Stars

Do you remember the Doctor Dolittle movie with Eddie Murphy? Yes, I try to forget about it too. The book has very little in common with the movie. A very well-behaved boy goes on a journey with Doctor Dolittle, who has learned to talk to animals, and various animal friends to save Doctor Dolittle’s friend/colleague Long Arrow. Some kids might actually enjoy this one.

The Dark Frigate
by Charles Hawes
Winner of the 1924 Newbery Medal
1 Star

“Yay! Pirates!” was my initial reaction when I read the description of The Dark Frigate. That was probably the most exciting part of the whole reading experience. Seriously. I fell asleep a lot while reading this book. In fact, I can’t really tell you what happened in this book.

Tales From Silver Lands
by Charles J. Finger
Winner of the 1925 Newbery Medal
2 Stars

The curse of the condescending, grandfatherly narrator continues. In this book, we have a bunch of folktales collected from Central America and South America. The stories were interesting, but not written to be engaging at all.

Shen of the Sea
by Arthur Bowie Chrisman
Winner of the 1926 Newbery Medal
1.5 Stars

We move from a collection of real South American folktales to a collection of made-up Chinese folktales written by an American. There might have been a bit more variety in the stories compared to Tales From Silver Lands, but they come off stereotypical and seem written to teach a lesson instead of tell a story.

Smoky the Cowhorse
by Will James
Winner of the 1927 Newbery Medal
1 Star

I don’t really like Westerns. I never went through a horse-loving phrase as a kid. In fact, I avoid inspirational horse movies, which seemed like its own genre for awhile. So, a life story of a cowhorse narrated by the horse himself in a strange dialect never had a strong chance of impressing me. The story ranges from Smoky’s idyllic childhood, time under a loving owner, through a variety of challenging and abusive situations. Will he ever get escape?!

Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon
by Dhan Gopal Mukerji
Winner of the 1928 Newbery Medal
2.5 Stars

Just as Smoky was a horse telling his life story, Gay-Neck is the story of a…pigeon. Yes, a pigeon. I went into the book with very low expectations and was pleasantly surprised. Gay-Neck is a carrier pigeon in India who has various adventures and serves as a messenger in World War I. Mukerji shared several interesting tidbits about Indian cultures, Buddhism, and raising carrier pigeons.  This is also the first of the Newbery books set in other countries where the author is actually from the country he’s describing (India), which means less painful stereotyping.

The Trumpeter of Krakow
by Eric P. Kelly
Winner of the 1929 Newbery Medal
2.5 Stars

The Charnetski family escapes to Krakow after their home is attacked by Tartars, bringing with them their family heirloom–a pumpkin (okay, the actual heirloom may be hidden inside). They find a home with the help of a local scholar,  and essentially adopt the girl who lives upstairs with her uncle when he becomes fixated on the study of alchemy. This book definitely has the most interesting plot of all the Newbery Medal winners so far, but everything that happens in the book is just too convenient and simple. Also, the children are too sickeningly well-behaved, polite, and smart to be believable.

These first eight books have made me appreciate how much children’s literature has changed and, in my opinion, improved. Of these books, The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle is the only one I can imagine handing to a child. I maybe would give Smoky the Cowhorse to a kid if hypothetical kid was really interested in horses and westerns, but it would hurt a bit.

On to the 1930s! First up is Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, which appears to be the memoirs of a doll. I’m sure you can appreciate how enthusiastic I am to begin.

Wish me luck. I think I’ll need it.