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.

I Guess I’m An Immature Grown-Up

Chris Harris’s book of poems, I’m Just No Good at Rhyming, is specifically for “mischievous kids and immature grown-ups.” And I absolutely loved it. If it means I get to enjoy masterpieces like this, I will happily own the title of immature.

Harris put together an excellent mix of poems for all ages. Some of them are the type of sheer ridiculousness that will have kids howling. Others contain more subtle jokes adults will find hilarious. As with any collection, I didn’t love all of them, but it was pretty darn close.

My favorites (it was a hard choice, but if I had to choose) were “I’m Just No Good At Rhyming” and “Two Roads.” I really liked “Rhyming” because it’s my favorite kind of poetry. There are lots of ways to make words dance along in a poem without making them rhyme, and I’m glad he took a whole poem to point that out. And I loved “Two Roads” because it’s a really funny joke involving one of the most popular poems out there.

Lots of people are comparing this book to Shel Silverstein’s works. I suppose it’s apt, except I was never that big a fan of Silverstein (sorry Shel!) and I loved this book, in case you haven’t figured that out yet.

One of the things I most appreciated about this book was the number of times Harris inserted a more profound message into a poem without ever killing the mood. When you’re done laughing, you’ll realize that there’s some good food for thought in there.

While I’m gushing over Harris, it’s only fair to take some time out to acknowledge the brilliance of Lane Smith, the illustrator. The drawings complement the poems perfectly, and there’s some excellent back-and-forth between the two minds behind this project.

As a final note, take some time to read through everything. The front cover, author’s note, acknowledgements…everything is entertaining. I actually think the acknowledgements were my favorite part of the book.

If you’ve read it, how long did it take you to figure out what was going on with the page numbers? It took me far longer than it should have.

Five out of five stars. Read this book and then badger everyone you know to do the same.

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.

One Dark Throne

At the end of my review for Three Dark Crowns I said that I didn’t have any idea what direction Kendare Blake might be taking this book. And I was right, I had no idea. This book took a lot of unexpected turns on me, and I don’t even know how it did that when I had no expectations. I kind of feel like I just got off a roller coaster. And man, what a ride.

Blake does an excellent job of keeping the stakes high by making all three sisters sympathetic, but you’re still going to have your favorite. In the first book, Mirabella was mine. Her sisters are all prepared to kill or die and she just wants everyone to get along. But somehow manages to not sound whiny or schmaltzy about it.

In One Dark Crown, I think Arsinoe stole favorite status for me. She just seems so much more proactive and independent in this one. She’s still dabbling in her low magic, which seems to have been a pretty bad idea in the last book, but it’s surprisingly working for her. And I thought her scenes with Mirabella were gold.

Side note: does anyone understand the bear? How did it go from wild rampaging beast at the Quickening to more or less tame familiar? I know Arsinoe did another spell to bind it, but I still feel like that whole issue resolved itself rather inexplicably.

I felt really bad for Katherine in the first book. Her childhood sounds awful. And I still kind of feel bad for her after the second book. It’s not her fault she got thrown into a pit and now has dead queens urging her on to vengeance. But she’s taken it a little too far. Whatever else happens in book three, I think we can all agree that Katherine needs to be taken down. Hopefully not in a permanent way, but seriously. She’s out of control.

As far as who I think should ultimately end up on the throne, it’s pretty obvious, right? Jules should definitely be queen. She is far more qualified than any of the triplets. I’m not even talking about her insanely powerful magic. Jules just has a better grasp on things. If Fennbirn would get rid of this ridiculous death match system and put the monarchy to a vote, I would stuff the ballot box for Jules.

Speaking of ridiculous systems, what exactly are the queens’ qualifications? Other than being born queens, obviously. As far as I can tell, they’ve spent the past ten years learning how to kill each other. Do they get any type of training that would help them actually rule a kingdom? Is this a deliberate choice so that the foster families get to be the real power behind the throne? Or does everyone just figure that there will plenty of time to figure out how to be a queen once your sisters aren’t trying to kill you?

I thought this was one of those books that sucks you in and makes you love it, but once you finish reading and start thinking about it, holes start to emerge. I would have rated this at 4 out of 5, but since putting it down it has fallen to 3 stars. Mostly because of the ending, which is action packed but also doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, so let’s talk about that.

SPOILER WARNING: As I said, I want to talk about the end of the book now, which should have clued you in about the spoilers, but just in case you missed that, SPOILERS AHEAD!

I thought the climax of the book was rolling along spectacularly. Arsinoe and Mirabella locked in the cell together, Katherine forcing Arsinoe to eat poison, now knowing it wouldn’t affect her, (If they were switched at birth, does that make Katherine a naturalist? I think she is.) Arsinoe needing to coach Mirabella on fake crying, it was all great. But then they get on the boat.

I can completely understand their desire to leave this island behind and just try again on the continent. It’s not like they haven’t both had this thought before. I did think it was a little unfair that Mirabella had to leave everyone behind without even saying goodbye when Arsinoe got to take her retinue, but that didn’t last long. But how did they leave? Was having the two sisters together the key? Is Mirabella really that powerful? Did the island not care that they left because Katherine had already been crowned? Hopefully this will get explained a little better in the third book.

Joseph dying was weird. I mean, does anyone really like him? Objectively, he has a tragic story. He’s exiled from his home, finally gets to return only to have one of his best friends accidentally put a love spell on him that makes him cheat on Jules, and then patches things up with her just to die, once again trying to leave the island. It’s like his whole life is just one big sad cycle of alternately trying to get away from or back to Fennbirn. But somehow in execution his character just came off as weak and useless. Did Kendare Blake realize this and decide to just get rid of him?

It’s not his death that doesn’t make sense so much as Jules’ reaction to it. After this big debate about whether she should leave the island or not, she dramatically declares that she isn’t going to leave her friends, even if they all end up drowning fifteen minutes later. Then, as soon as they get clear of the island, she immediately changes her mind. She leaves the best friend she has devoted her life to without a backward glance, hops in a boat with her cat, leaving the body of the boy she has loved for her entire life behind, and the only real mention of any of this is a casual, “you guys will take care of that, right?”

Jules is my favorite character (in case I haven’t made that clear already) and I’m happy she’ll be on the island in book three to be part of clearing up that whole messed up situation, but seriously. What is she doing in this scene?

I suppose the best answer to that question is that she is acting like a sixteen year old girl. Moments like this make me think I might be getting too old to read Young Adult books. Because seriously, what are Mirabella and Arsinoe’s foster parents doing? It’s a good thing they have Jules and Bree (and Elizabeth) because everyone else is useless.

So, in conclusion, I liked the book, despite it’s weak points. Objectively, it’s a three star book, but I’m still looking forward to the next one to find out what happens with all these crazy kids.



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.

The Shadow Queen

I thought I was over my fairy tale retelling phase, or at least on break from it, but clearly I’m not, because I devoured C. J. Redwine’s The Shadow Queen, a fantastic twist on Snow White. I loved it so much that I read it while out of town for work, carving out moments to read that really would have been better spent sleeping. But who needs sleep when you have books?

Lorelai, the princess-turned-fugitive, is on the run with her brother and her mentor, dreaming of taking back her throne someday while really just trying not to be killed. For fans of Once Upon A Time, you’ll find many similarities between this version of Snow White and the Snow we meet in the flashbacks of season 1. Despite Lorelai’s growing powers, she hesitates to actually confront her wicked stepmother, Irina, since the last time she did that people died.

Prince Kol, from the neighboring kingdom, is just about Lorelai’s opposite. While she can’t claim the throne she wants, he is forced to accept the throne he never thought would be his. Despite his people’s shape-changing abilities, they are powerless against the invading ogres. His search for allies leads him to Ravenspire. There he ends up stuck between Lorelai and Irina, trying to do the right thing despite powerful magic compelling him to do otherwise.

Things I liked about this book: a good, workable system for magic. As I noted in my review of Uprooted, it can be hard to put magic into your story without it becoming an automatic solution to everybody’s problems. Redwine finds a system that allows her characters to accomplish fantastic things, but not without a price. (That just begs for another OUAT reference, but I’ll resist.)

Another strong point: excellent character development. This is particularly true of Kol. Lorelia doesn’t change her character so much as just become more confident in her abilities as they’re tested. Kol becomes the leader he needs to be. His willingness to make sacrifices was, I would argue, always part of his character, but the way in which those sacrifices shape him make for a compelling arc.

On the flip side: Irina’s character does not make a lot of sense. What is it that she wants, exactly? Power? That makes sense and fits with the story. But there’s a weird push to make her seem slightly more sympathetic (at least that’s how it read to me) by making her crave love and acceptance. But then she sabotages any chance she has at happiness by grasping for more power. I suppose this could be tragic, and not an uncommon choice for villains, but something about this particular case didn’t fit well. Maybe because the choice between power and happiness is usually more subtle and this was pretty darn blatant.

Despite this weakness, I would still rate this 4 out of 5. A badass princess, a prince who can turn into a dragon, and a great connection between the two. Really, what else could you want?

Where The Lights Falls

I checked this book out on impulse from my library (it was displayed right by the circulation desk) and I’m so glad I did. Where The Light Falls is a historical novel about the French Revolution written by the brother-sister duo of Owen and Allison Pataki. And it’s a masterpiece.

The Patakis capture the atmosphere of Paris during the Reign of Terror a little too well. I read through the last two-thirds of the book in about twelve hours because I was so afraid of what was going to happen to my favorite characters I couldn’t put it down. Jean-Luc did not impress me when he was first introduced, but he certainly earned my respect and admiration before the end. André and Sophie were likable from the very beginning, although there were parts of their story I found unsatisfying, but we’ll get to that in the spoiler section.

I’m not all that familiar with French history, so I wasn’t sure how accurate the book was, but my overall impression was that the Patakis did more than their share of research to write this. They do have a note in the back where they point out which characters were fictitious and which real, as well as where they took artistic license with events to make them match the timeline of the novel better. I enjoy learning about history, and think one of the most enjoyable ways to do so is to read well-written historical fiction. This book certainly qualifies as that.

Perhaps my favorite feature of this book is the suggested reading list in the back. In writing this blog, I’ve discovered how hard it is to find good books without solid recommendations from reliable sources. As much as I liked Where The Light Falls, I’m willing to consider the authors reliable sources on further reading material.

The French Revolution and the resulting Reign of Terror were not good times in France’s history. The Bourbon monarchy drove their people past the breaking point, and the results were ugly. Where The Light Falls has villains you love to hate, heroes you hate to lose, and raises lots of uncomfortable questions about human nature. 4.5 out of 5.

SPOILER SECTION: I want to talk about a few things I didn’t like so much about this book, mostly character deaths, so be warned: SPOILER AHEAD!

Any book that features a guillotine as prominently as this one does is going to have more than it’s fair share of character deaths. And I’m certainly not one to think that every single character needs to have a happily-ever-after. As much as I hated to see Kellerman beheaded, for example, his death served an important function in the overall plot and structure. But I feel like André’s family really got cheated.

The death of André’s father opens the novel. It sets the tone and the fact that you don’t realize until later that his son is the main character doesn’t really take away from the impact at all. But finding out that his mother died of pox in England without ever becoming a character didn’t carry the emotional punch it was supposed to. Perhaps because we get this information through Sophie and never see André’s reaction to it. But Remy’s death infuriated me.

Remy is the affable younger brother who doesn’t take anything in life seriously. His genuine admiration for his older brother is perhaps his best trait. The fact that he is willing to put his own life at risk to save Sophie shows that he isn’t as shallow and selfish as he sometimes comes across. But then he dies off-page, and we don’t get any confirmation over whether he’s really alive or dead until almost the end of the book. Leaving that little kernel of hope until the end should have made the fact of his death devastating, but so much else had happened, and was happening at the moment of revelation, that I’d sort of moved past him. André himself didn’t seem to be all that upset by it, probably because he was almost dead and in shock when he got the news and we never revisited the subject. I certainly don’t want to wallow in tragedy, but I think Remy deserved better. At least a moment of silence or something.

Another character’s death that I saw coming and yet didn’t at the same time was Marie. I don’t remember know exactly what tipped me off, but for most of the novel I was expecting her to die, probably at Lavare’s hands, whether directly or indirectly. Instead she dies in childbirth while Jean-Luc is off saving Sophie. I think the point was supposed to be that she knew something was wrong but she pretended to be fine so her husband would leave to save their friend. But it felt completely unnecessary to me. Murat and Lazare and both dead, Sophie is safe, victory is won, and Jean-Luc comes home to a dead wife. Why? To show how the women of France were making sacrifices even though they were largely excluded from the nation’s democratic laws? I could maybe see that, but it could have come through much clearer. The reveal of Marie and Citizen Persephone might have helped make this point, but it felt like an afterthought. I’d already figured it out and they didn’t see any more about it than to point it out, so I’m not sure what the point of that was either.

The final thing I thought was missing in the book was André and Sophie’s reunion. The action ends with André recovering from his fight with Murat in Egypt and Sophie in Jean-Luc’s apartment immediately after killing Lazare. The next time we see them, they’re together in Paris years later. After everything those two went through to be together, I want to see them celebrate their victory over their enemies. Instead I’ll just have to be happy that they did in fact get their happy ending.

Despite these criticisms, I did really enjoy the book and highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys history with a good dash of romance.


Three Dark Crowns

Kendare Blake’s Three Dark Crowns is…well…dark. In every generation, a set of triplets is born into the royal family. These three sisters are separated as children, and on their 16th birthday they have one year to kill each other off. The last one standing becomes queen.

This generation’s triplets are Mirabella, Arsinoe, and Katharine. Each of them are supposedly born with magical powers, but only Mirabella seems to actually have any. As such, she seems like the natural choice for the one to become queen, but there’s just one little problem. Mirabella doesn’t want to kill her sisters. Actually, none of the three are all that eager to start killing, but they’re convinced that it’s kill or be killed.

This book covers the lead up to their sixteenth birthday, meaning they’re not actually trying to kill each other yet. Like many first books, it’s a lot of set up, but I thought it moved along briskly enough to avoid being boring. I was glad of the time to get to know all three sisters, as that sends you into book two equally invested in all of their well-being, rather than strongly rooting for one of the sisters to win or lose.

As far as plot goes, I found this to be more horrifying than The Hunger Games. At least in that series, children being forced to kill each other was seen as a horrible thing by the vast majority of the characters. In Three Dark Crowns, the three sisters are apparently the only ones who see anything wrong with the governing system.

If I had to pick a favorite sister, it would be Mirabella, with Katharine a close second. I’m not a fan of Arsinoe because of the way she messes up her best friend’s love life, but I still don’t think she deserves to die for it. Plus, she didn’t mean to mess it up. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and believing that your two sisters are about to try to kill you is pretty desperate.

The next book, One Dark Throne, is now out. My library is in the process of acquiring it, while I wait impatiently. I’m really hoping all three sisters come to an understanding and manage to overthrow this really bad system, but as I haven’t read any of Kendare Blake’s other books, I really don’t know which direction she might take this in. Either way, I’m excited to find out what happens next and rate Three Dark Crowns at 4.5 out of 5.

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.