The Wild Robot

Peter Brown’s book about Roz, a robot who gets activated by curious otters after the cargo ship carrying her sinks and her crate washes ashore on a wilderness island, is oddly heartwarming considering the main character does not have a heart. Roz’s programming does not, in my opinion, explain all of her decisions. I’m not sure if these human-like qualities are going to be explored further in the sequel, or if this is supposed to be a children’s book, so of course the main character is not going to be cold and calculating the whole time.

This is an excellent children’s book. I found it a little overly-simplistic and even the exciting moments didn’t seem all that engrossing to me, but I am 15 to 20 years out of the target audience. Brown keeps the tone fairly light, even when describing sad events, so I don’t think it would be too much for kids. Large sections of the book simply talk about Roz’s day to day struggle to survive in the wilderness and made me think of Hatchet, if Brian was a robot.

The ending was a bit heart wrenching, but I’m pretty certain everything will turn out all right in the end. Despite the cliffhanger and some curiosity over Roz’s fate, I’m not in a big rush to read book 2, though I imagine I’ll get around to it someday. For my own reading of it, I’d give it three stars, but I think it would rate a solid four for an age-appropriate reader. So if you’re an adult, I’d recommend you skip over this one. If you’re an adult with kids, by all means, give it a read with the little ones.

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Annual 2017 Book Review

Happy New Year! I’ve got a long list of books to work through for 2018, but first my sister and I started a lovely little tradition we are calling the Annual 2017 Book Review. We chose 5 categories and each came with our picks from the books we read this past year.

Side note: this would not have been possible without Goodreads. This is the first year I really tracked my reading, and I highly recommend it. Goodreads is what I use, but there are other apps out there, or you could use an Excel spreadsheet, or there’s this quaint little thing called a notebook that I hear works well. Whatever you use, I think tracking your reading is an excellent 2018 resolution.

On to the categories!

Most Surprising

Are’s Pick: Where the Light Falls by Allison and Owen Pataki
This is the historical novel of the French Revolution that I highly recommended. My sister wouldn’t have read it if I hadn’t gotten it for her, but once she did she liked it more than she thought she would and, as she said, found herself thinking about it after she read it, which I always think is a mark of an excellent book.

Michele’s Pick: A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman
I picked this book for almost the exact same reasons my sister picked hers. She got it first, told me I simply had to read it, and even though I hate taking orders from my sister, I’m glad I followed this one. I never would have picked it on my own, but it was one of the best books I read this year. If there had been a Most Heartwarming category, we both agreed this would have won hands down.

Most Disappointing

We actually spent more time on this category than any other, and even though we left it as one big group, I’m going to break this into two sub-groups, the first simply being the Most Disappointing.

Are’s Pick: The Storyteller by Antonia Michaelis
I didn’t read this book, and after my sister’s review of it, I doubt I ever will. The main character is apparently trying to give his little sister a better life than he ever had, but he supposedly accomplishes this by being in the most dysfunctional relationship imaginable and then (SPOILER ALERT) committing suicide right in front of his sister and his girlfriend. In my sister’s words: “A truly awful book.”

Michele’s Pick: The Regional Office Is Under Attack by Manuel Gonzales
Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown
So I cheated and had two picks for this category, but they’re both here for the same reason. I actually liked both of these books, but I thought they were going to be fun reads, and they weren’t. I enjoyed reading them, for the most part, but not for the reasons I thought I would and I was disappointed in the lack of fun in both of them. Gonzales’ book started out much more serious than I thought it would be, but Brown’s beginning was just as much fun as I thought it would be before taking a serious and, for me, very unexpected turn in tone towards the end.

So Disappointing I Didn’t Even Finish

We talked about making this the name of the Most Disappointing category, and even though we didn’t, I’m still going to include it here.

Are’s Pick: Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston
This book is about a rumored lost city deep in the Honduran interior surrounded by legends and mystery. And the best part is, it’s non-fiction. But somehow Preston takes what should be one of the most fascinating journeys ever and makes it boring. His biggest problem is an excessive use of detail. My sister got so bogged down in the minute descriptions of the rainforest flora and fauna she never made it the rest of the way through.

Michele’s Pick: The Badass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer
Once again proving that my sister and I share a hive mind, I picked a different book for the exact same reasons for this category. Just look at that title. This is the true story of how the librarians of Timbuktu smuggled rare Islamic manuscripts out of the city before Al Qaeda could destroy them. I wanted so badly to love this book. And I couldn’t even finish it. Like Preston, Hammer goes into way too much detail, especially about the origins of the manuscripts. I just wasn’t following a lot of it, and I really don’t think I’m the only one. So close but so, so far.

Best Non-Fiction

Are’s Pick: Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie Spence
Annie Spence is a librarian who has written a collection of letters to the books in her library. Some of the are breakup letters, some are love letters, they’re all pretty fantastic. At least of the ones my sister read out loud to me between chuckles. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s very high on my to-read list, and I suggest you put it on yours too. The best part? It will furnish many more titles to add to your to-read list, though if you’re anything like us, that’s not usually a problem for you.

Michele’s Pick: The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson
Etymology is endlessly fascinating to me, and this book could not have delivered better. Even though I read it at the very beginning of 2017, it remained at the top of my list for the entire year. If you ever wonder how this crazy language of ours became what it is, this is the book for you.

Funniest

By unanimous vote: Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Despite some other strong contenders, we both agreed that Stevenson’s graphic novel reigns supreme here. The story of Ballister Blackheart and his demented little sidekick took a lot of unexpected turns, but it remained solidly entertaining the whole time. It is a bit violent, but my sister and I both have rather dark senses of humor, so it appealed to us.

Best Book of the Year

A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman
Funny, heartwarming, thought-provoking, relatable, this book didn’t quite reach my very favorite of the year, but it was in the running and I certainly understand why my sister placed it here. It has reached new prominence with the release of the movie based on it, which I think is a very good thing. Everyone should read this book.

Michele’s Pick: Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye
I cannot articulate how much I liked this book. I told my sister I’m not sure what I love so much about this book, to which she replied, “Everything,” and that’s pretty accurate. I realize not everyone loves the classics as much as I do, but you just might after reading this book. It’s fantastic, and you need to go read it.

Honorable Mention

These are for those books that didn’t quite make it into one of the categories, but should have if the competition wasn’t so tight.

Are’s Pick: The Passage by Justin Cronin
This is the first book in a trilogy about the end of the world, via a virus that turns people into zombies. Zombies aren’t really my thing, so I don’t see myself reading these books, but my sister loved them.

Michele’s Pick: I’m Just No Good at Rhyming by Chris Harris.
This should have been the funniest book, and for most people it would have been, but Nimona’s dark edge played just a little more to my tastes. It also could have been the most unexpected, as I don’t usually enjoy poetry this much, but I thought Ove deserved the top spot rather than an Honorable Mention. Of course, Nimona was also unexpected because I don’t usually like graphic novels either. So this was a really tough choice for me and even though Harris got bumped down here, it’s still one of the very best books I’ve read in the past several years, and I recommend it very highly.

So that’s 2017 in a nutshell for us. What do you think of our picks? Love them? Hate them? Have your own books you want to put into the categories? Have any category suggestions you think need to be included? I’d love to hear all this and more in the comments!

The First Twenty Minutes

The First Twenty Minutes is not an old book. It came out in 2012. In terms of science and discovery, it’s pretty ancient. Gretchen Reynolds’ book on exercise science was cutting edge when it came out. For those of you who are into fitness and follow the latest trends, much of her book has already become common knowledge. But it’s still worth reading.

Getting into shape does not have to mean running for hours on a treadmill. A hard interval work (even one that only lasts 20 minutes) can accomplish as much as a much longer, slower run. Weight lifting has plenty of health benefits associated with it, besides muscle growth. Our bodies are designed to move, even if that only means standing up from your desk every twenty minutes or so and pacing around your office.

And that about sums up this book. If you want to know the science behind all of those claims, Reynolds has it for you. I got a little lost in the science sometimes. Most of the terms rang faint bells from my high school biology class. A lot of it still didn’t mean that much to me. I think she could have spent more time bottom-lining things and less time spelling out the exact experiments that were conducted.

I did think the findings were interesting, and even though I said much of it was common knowledge, I’m sure you’ll find some things that you hadn’t heard before. I know I did. And even what I already knew I liked having confirmed.

Reynolds’ mostly focuses on the science and lets the facts speak for themselves. I really liked the parts where she let her own voice come through a little clearer, which was mostly in the introduction and conclusion. So my biggest critique of this book, which I think should be a compliment to Reynolds, is that I wish she’d been herself a little more.

I still recommend this book to anyone who needs a little motivation to get out there and move more. Just about every aspect of your health can be improved through some form of movement. If you already exercise and want to understand more of the science of what is happening in your body, this is a good book. If you just like to learn things, this is a good book. All in all, I would say this is not a great book, but it is a good one. Four stars.

Cinnamon and Gunpowder

Cinnamon and Gunpowder is the story of Owen Wedgwood, British chef extraordinaire, and Mad Hannah Mabbot, captain of the pirate ship the Flying Rose. Mabbot murders Wedgwood’s employer and kidnaps him, promising him that his life will be spared so long as he provides her with a delicious Sunday night dinner every week. As Wedgwood adjusts to life at sea, he also learns that much of what he took for granted on land is simply not true.

I really enjoyed this book. It made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me rethink the human condition and the nature of good and evil. All of the ingredients, as Wedgwood would say, for a five star book are there. And yet, it’s just four stars.

The beginning of the book is packed full of swashbuckling fun. I really like Mabbot’s relationship with her crew. I liked how she called Wedgwood “Wedge” and I liked the crew’s nickname for him, “Spoons.” But then the book takes a gradually more serious turn, as the true nature of the Pendleton Trading Company and the opium trade come to light.

I think the whole issue of exposing corporate corruption and making up for past mistakes is a great theme for a book. And it is a serious topic that deserves serious consideration. But  Eli Brown changes the tone of his story completely. I think it would have greatly benefited from a few more light-hearted moments in the second half.

I also could have done with some forewarning of what was coming. I didn’t know much about this book before I read it, so I started out with swashbuckling fun and expected it to continue on until the last page. The swashbuckling continues, but the fun doesn’t. Maybe if I had been better prepared for that, I would have made the transition better. Now that you know, you’ll have to report back to me once you finish the book.

Despite my difficulties with the tone, it’s still a great book. It doesn’t have quite the ending I wanted, but it has the ending the stories and the characters needed. It falls short of the five star mark, but at four stars, I still highly recommend it.

A Man Called Ove

All I knew about this book going on was that it was about a grumpy old man with a cat who somehow reminds every single person who reads it about their grandfather. I really think I enjoyed it more because of that, so if you haven’t read it yet, all you need to know is that it’s fantastic and you should.

SPOILER WARNING: If you completely skipped over that first paragraph, I’m telling you, you’ll enjoy this book more if you don’t know what’s coming. So stop reading this and go read that.

For those of you who have read it, were you as surprised as I was? If anyone had told me that a book about a widower trying to commit suicide would be funny and heartwarming and incredibly relatable, I would never have believed them. But A Man Called Ove is all of that and more.

I could most definitely imagine either of my grandfathers stomping around their house, checking radiators and grumbling about young people and their foreign cars. And there’s something very admirable about Ove’s insistence on doing the right thing in the right way, even when he’s ungracious about it. But I think my favorite character is Parvenah.

Parvaneh is Ove’s new neighbor, a pregnant Iranian woman who’s bumbling husband and two energetic daughters keep unwittingly messing up Ove’s suicide attempts. Parvaneh is the only one who realizes what is going on (at least at first) and embarks on a mission to keep Ove alive.

The whole arc of the community pulling together to save Ove and Rune, combined with Ove’s backstory of always fighting the bureaucracy and losing was immensely satisfying. I wanted to stand up and cheer when he finally came out on top.

The end of the book had me on the edge of my seat. The first time Ove tries to hang himself, I wasn’t all that invested in whether he succeeded or not. By Sepidah’s birthday party, I was terrified that he was going to go through with it. And then he has his cardiac event and I was going to be furious at Frederick Backman if Ove finally decided he wanted to live only to die of natural causes.

The epilogue is bittersweet. Life goes on, and that means death goes on too. The community changes, but the more things change the more they stay the same, as shown by the annoyed young Saab driver who buys Ove’s house.

Missing, Presumed made me question whether or not everyday life makes a good story. A Man Called Ove has restored my faith that everyday life is the best story there is. Five out of five stars.

Stiff is Anything But

A book about cadavers would not be my first choice of reading material, usually, but Mary Roach came highly recommended to me and Stiff was the first book of hers that fell into my hands. And I’m very glad it did.

Roach manages to write about what happens to us, or at least our physical remains, after we die with equal amounts of humor and respect. Maintaining the dignity of the deceased has been an ongoing debate surrounding everything from medical experiments to composting methods. Roach maintains this dignity throughout her book, even with her lighthearted attempts to soften a very harsh subject.

I did start to lose interest in the book near the end. The section on cannibalization might be responsible for that, or the description of head transplants attempted on dogs. Both were pretty horrific. Or it could be that I had simply reached my limit on how much I wanted to know about dead bodies.

Either way, I greatly enjoyed Roach’s writing style, even when the content was grossing me out. I would strongly hesitate to recommend this book to anyone that I did not know very well. But I do not hesitate at all to recommend Mary Roach as an author. I’ve heard particularly great things about her study into space exploration: Packing for Mars.

Lyndsay Faye Saves the Day!

Hello, readers! I’m sure you’ve noticed that I haven’t been posting lately. I just haven’t found any good books to review for a while. I’ve been rereading a lot of old ones, but every time I try to break new ground, I end up stalling out and not finishing.

Enter Lyndsay Faye. After loving Jane Steele, I got Faye’s first novel, Dust and Shadow. It’s not quite a retelling, but it is a Sherlock Holmes story. In this case, Faye’s “What if” question was “What if Sherlock Holmes investigated the Ripper murders?”

I like Sherlock Holmes (the short stories better than the novels) so I was prepared to love Dust and Shadow. I wouldn’t say I loved it, but I did like it enough to bust me out of my slump, finish a book, and come here to write about it, so yay!

It’s been a while since I’ve read any Sherlock Holmes, but I think they do often get off to a slow start. I loved the end of Jane Steele so much I forgot how much I slogged through the beginning, but that one also took a while to get going. So it took me longer than it should have to really get into Dust and Shadow. I think I was about halfway through before I got really invested in the investigation.

Part of that might be because I’ve read other books on Jack the Ripper. Much of the beginning of the novel is a rehashing of the established facts, most of which I already knew. But once Faye laid the groundwork and sent the detective of Baker Street to work, I was hooked.

By nature of the historical facts, some of the scenes are gruesome. If that’s going to bother you (it should bother you a little, but if it’s going to ruin the book for you) then I do not recommend this one for you. I also found the ending vaguely unsatisfying, but very much in keeping with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original style.

Lyndsay Faye delivers meticulously researched and masterfully written novels. In my experience, she is 2 for 2. I’ll definitely be reading her other books and reporting back on what I think of them, but at this stage, I’m very confident in recommending any of her books.

Revisiting Neverland: Peter Pan Retellings

Months ago, I downloaded Kindle’s sample of UnhookedI really liked the direction the story was going with this girl whose parents had some mysterious connection with Neverland, but the sample ended right about the same time the story moved out of England and into the world of make believe. As I said, I really liked it, but not enough to buy the book to read the rest.

Months pass, I remember that public libraries exist, and I finally get my hands on the full copy of Unhooked. It was such a disappointment. I wasn’t a big fan of the ending. I felt like the beginning of the story set up a lot of unfulfilled expectations. But overall I couldn’t put my finger on what I didn’t like about the book. And then I read Alias Hook.

It was so much better. The books are very similar. Both make Captain Hook into a sympathetic character. By extension, this makes Peter Pan the bad guy. But how they go about doing that is very different.

In Unhooked, the protagonist and Hook are both teenagers, just like Pan. Pan wants to control Neverland and will stop at nothing to gain more power. He is unquestionably a villain. Hook is a former Lost Boy who has turned against Pan now that he knows the boy’s true nature. While I thought it sounded like a promising premise, it was ultimately unsatisfying.

Alias Hook focuses on a woman who has arrived in Neverland under mysterious circumstances, desperate to escape war-torn Europe and recapture her lost childhood. Hook, a full grown man, has been cursed to stay in Neverland, but with Stella’s reappearance, he learns that there may be a way to escape his prison. And it’s a fantastic character journey that I really want to discuss with you, but not until after you’ve read the book. So read it, get in touch, and we’ll chat. Seriously, I would love it if you did that.

In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I’m not going to go into more detail of the plot of either of these books, but I will talk about why I think Alias Hook works so much better. The idea of eternal childhood is central to the original Peter Pan. Hook isn’t a villain because he’s a pirate, but rather because he’s an adult. By putting Hook and Pan in the same age bracket, Unhooked loses that central conflict.

Alias Hook turns that conflict around by challenging whether eternal childhood is really such a good thing, but the same idea remains at the heart of Neverland. Pan is not the hero of the story, but he isn’t a true villain either. Because he’s still just a young boy, his ideas of right and wrong have not fully developed. He’s still cruel, but the point is that children have no grasp of the consequences of their actions, which is why they can be so heartless. Cutting off Hook’s hand is still a despicable act, but Pan has no notion of what it means to permanently maim someone.

If you want to read a Peter Pan retelling, I highly recommend Alias Hook by Lisa Jensen. If you decide to read a different one, I still really think you should find one that maintains the age difference between Pan and Hook. As with any retelling, fiddling with the details is what makes it new and fun, but the heart of the story has to stay in place.

 

Uprooted: Magic that Works

I really loved Naomi Novik’s fantasy novel Uprooted. In addition to being an author she is also a computer game designer. Much of her novel echoed aspects of the old Sierra adventure games like King’s Quest and Quest for Glory. So maybe part of it is just my 90’s nostalgia, but I loved it.

Her characters were great, her world was well-developed, and her folk story foundation was rock solid. But the crowning masterpiece of this book is the magic.

It’s hard to come up with a workable magic system for a fantasy world. If you’re not careful, you end up with the solution to all of your characters’ problems being right at their fingertips. Then you need to come up with some convoluted reason why magic can’t fix this particular problem. This is compounded when your main character is the most powerful wizard to be seen in hundreds of years, which is another fantasy staple.

So the question becomes, how do you make your character special without giving them unlimited power? Naomi Novik has found the answer in Uprooted.

Agnieska lives in a region protected by a Dragon (not a real dragon, just a wizard known by that name). Every ten years he picks a girl to be his servant. Everyone knows that he will take Agnieska’s best friend Kasia, who is beautiful and graceful and everything that Agnieska is not. But then choosing day comes and Angieska is the one taken.

Once back at the Tower, the Dragon tries to teach Angieska magic, but she is a horrible failure at it. Then she finds a little book full of spells that all work for her. The Dragon is stymied, as no one considered those spells any good, and eventually it all comes out. Agnieska does magic differently than other wizards do.

This is a brilliant move on Novik’s part. Agnieska is not more powerful than everyone else, but she can do things they can’t. On the flip side, things that come easily to them are hard for her. And when she works with someone, combining their two forms of magic, they can accomplish even more.

This gives them their best chance yet to beat back the Wood, a malevolent power that corrupts everyone that comes in contact with it. But it also creates even more problems. Working magic together is kind of intimate. What if no other magic user is around to work with you? What if the only one available isn’t someone you’re comfortable forming that type of connection with?

Novik’s magic system sets up a framework that allows her characters to break new ground while still providing limits. When you combine this with a world-weary sorcerer with a dry sense of humor, a determined heroine who makes things up as she goes along, and a sinister villain whose power reaches farther than anyone ever guessed, the resulting story is simply magical.

Reckoning of Dragons

Rob May’s epic fantasy trilogy made for a quick and entertaining read. Even though there were things about it that I didn’t love, one thing made it some of the best fantasy I have ever read: Kal Moonheart is the epic heroine I never knew I wanted until I found her.

We’re all familiar with the character who is living a quiet life and only wants to be left alone until some cataclysmic event forces them to take action and save the world. It’s noble of them, really. But as they hope from danger to danger, it gets harder to believe that they’re doing everything they can to avoid excitement. The lady doth protest too much.

And then there’s Kal. She will leap headfirst into trouble for no other reason than to see what happens. She’s largely motivated by money, though she does have enough of a conscience to help a friend out. Strangers can fend for themselves. Kal isn’t looking forward to finishing one last dangerous task and then retiring to the quiet life. The quiet life bores her silly and has her investigating dangerous intrigues just to break up the monotony.

May’s other characters are equally three-dimensional and interesting. I highly encourage aspiring writers to read this series as an example of how to develop good characters. They all have positive and negative traits, making me like all of them, even if I kind of hated them too.

The one thing I did not like about this book: the ending left me wanting more. There are many more stories to tell with this world. As far as I can tell, Rob May isn’t working on any new books with these characters at the moment, but a girl can hope.