The Amber Spyglass

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5 Stars

Siiiiiiigh. Don’t you just love and hate that feeling when a really great book ends? It’s such a bitter sweet sensation…I have this strange way of reading the last several chapters of such a book. I’ll read really quickly, then stop at a great part (especially if I’ve read the story before) and put the book aside for a short while just to relish the knowledge of how good it’s going to be. Then I’ll devour the next few chapters, then stop again, and the last couple of pages I read and reread and reread slowly to draw it out as much as possible. Needless to say, the last chapter of this book took forever to get through, and I loved every second of it.

This is the third and final installment in His Dark Materials trilogy, and while I think The Amber Spyglass is my overall favorite, this is a very close second. The story deals with the overarching storyline that was in all three books–the rebellion of the people against the Authority. This plot is much more violent and intense than the last two, and a good portion of it takes place in battle. There is really way too much to sum up here, but the characters are timeless, the actions full of treachery and nobility, and the love story is classic.
One of the greatest parts of this book is the obvious religious (and anti establishment) views of the author. They are so subtly woven into the first two books, then he just comes right out and says them in the last. I probably wouldn’t have liked it at all if I didn’t like the message he was sending. I suggest that if you have particularly strong feelings about religion, read this book with caution. Know that the author obviously hates organized religion as it stands today, and he does not hide the fact. He does make some compelling observations about humankind and the nature of being alive, while cleverly weaving in the most basic of bible stories. I loved it. Love, love, love!

–Adrienne

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Published in: on August 18, 2007 at 11:05 am  Leave a Comment  

At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances

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3 Stars

Hee hee! What an interesting and strange book. This was one of those short, easy reads, and happens to fall into the generic fiction category (that means it’s kinda weird). The story involves a professor at a German university, engaged in professorial pastimes such as planning the demise of his rivals, and worrying who will try and take over his office during his sabbatical. You know, just a normal day in academia. The professor receives an invitation from the Cuban government to receive an honorary degree, and he naturally jumps at the chance, especially since his arch nemesis is green with envy at the news. Then the fun begins–during his stay in Cuba, the professor inadvertently becomes part of a military coup (which, according to the book, is quite common), and is named leader of the country. Leader in name only, of course, as his position is one with a short life span. He solves his dilemma in his cerebral way and goes on to bigger and better things, such as investigating his suspicion that his best enemy temporarily took up residence in his office.

The book was fun and clever, especially given I work in an academic setting, and the antics of these fictional professors really aren’t all that far off. The writing was crisp and clean, and the slap-stick-yet-dire situations were comical and tense simultaneously. I suggest this as an easy read where you don’t want to think much. It probably won’t stick with you for too long, which is perfect for vacation or bedtime. Enjoy!

–Adrienne

Published in: on August 18, 2007 at 11:03 am  Leave a Comment  

Cell

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3.5 Stars

Steven King has become experimental as of late. In his earlier works (after Richard Bachman, but before his car accident) he had a definite style–highly detailed, sickly twisted horror fantasies that tapped into our deepest fears (and gave us some new ones to haunt our dreams). Now, I’m not sure if this is actually what happened, but it seems like ever since Mr. King got hit by that car, his style has changed a bit. Perhaps he was beginning to explore different realms beforehand and the car accident was just a coincidence, but he has changed. His basic style is still there, but he’s adding to it, or taking away from it, or coming from a different direction or something. Whatever he’s doing, the result is different. He doesn’t seem to have a clearly defined point of view anymore…each new book is so different from any other he’s written that it can be hard to recognize it as a Steven King novel. I haven’t decided if this is good or bad yet…the books are hit or miss at the moment but I love this author so much I’m willing to keep trying no matter what I thought of his last work.

Cell is one of his newer books, and harkens back to some of the stories that made him great. It tells of a massive pulse sent out along phone waves that infects anyone who uses a cell phone. Think zombies without having to die first. The newly infected blindly attack anything that moves while the survivors struggle to continue in the living world. Hilarity and horror ensues. The story continues in a typical King fashion all the way until the end–which he just leaves kinda dangling. Strange. The major story was wrapped up mostly, but he ended everything on a cliffhanger which just left a strange taste in my mouth. One of his recent books doesn’t have an ending at all–it’s more the story of someone telling a mystery with no answer. Cell has that same unfinished quality, and I’m not sure if I like it or not. I guess time and more books will tell.

–Adrienne

Published in: on August 18, 2007 at 10:58 am  Leave a Comment  

The Big Over Easy

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3.5 Stars

My friend Tracy started telling me about this book a long time ago. Eventually she dropped it off and I finally got to read about all the fun, imaginative things she had mentioned. I love it when friends give me books they are excited about!
It was a really fun read. The story is about a real place in the world where fairy tales are embodied and live among us. The fairy tale characters (and their inevitable stories) are policed by Jack Sprat (shall eat no fat) and his partner Mary Mary (quite contrary). This particular story revolves around Mary Mary’s first case with underdog Jack (he is forced to work nursery crimes while his ex-partner and frenemy gets the bigger busts) as he investigates the death of Humpty Dumpty. He sat on a wall, you see, and had a great fall. No one could put him together again, and now Jack and Mary Mary must piece together the evidence (hee! I’m clever) and figure out what happened.

The author does a great job brining in all the great nursery rhymes–from Old Mother Hubbard to Wee Willy Winky. It was fun the way he did it–he put each character into the setting of their nursery rhyme, but didn’t spell it out. I found myself reciting the rhymes as each character was introduced. Do you know how hard it is to remember some of these?!? I couldn’t think of the Wee Willy Winky one at all (apparently he ran through town at 8 or something) and I kept getting the real version of Old Mother Hubbard mixed up with Andrew Dice Clay’s version (it went something like this for hours: “Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard to get her old dog a bone…something something something, something something else…damnit! And gave her a bone of his own! What the hell is the real rhyme?!?”). Thank goodness for Google.
Anyhow, the story clever, the characters fun, and the chance to revisit some beloved nursery rhymes priceless. There is that annoyance factor of the arch nemesis doing everything to undermine our hero’s work, and I hate that type of thing. You know what would be awesome? Punching fictional characters. Malfoy is next on my list. The great news is this is the first book in a series that follows Mr. Sprat on his investigating duties. Think CSI in nursery land. Fun for us!

–Adrienne

See Tracy’s review of this book!

Published in: on August 18, 2007 at 10:56 am  Comments (1)  

The Legend of Luke: A Tale from Redwall

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2 1/2 Stars

This is, like, the tenthish book in Brian Jacques’s beloved Redwall series. The series follows the adventures of a community of kindly woodland beings (mice, squirrels, bunnys, otters, moles, et al) and their ongoing struggles against foul vermin (rats, stoats, ferrets, etc). The stories are, generally, a joy to read for children and adults alike.

In this volume, Martin, the mouse-hero of Redwall Abby, heads out to learn the fate of his father Luke, who left home when Martin was child to hunt searat pirates, and never returned. Martin and his party have some adventures on their way to finding some of Luke’s old companions, who pass along Luke’s story. Then they all head back to Redwall for the usual feasting and such.

Luke’s story was quite fun to read. The rest of the book was pretty boring. This is one of my least favorite Redwall books.

ben

Published in: on August 17, 2007 at 5:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

Aunt Dimity and the Deep Blue Sea

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3 Stars

Oh, Aunt Dimity. I adore these books. This series is really just a bunch of silly little mysteries with a twist: one of the major characters is a ghost. Fun! This installation sees our heroin, Laurie, in mortal danger from some source or another (as per usual), so her husband sends her and their boys off to a secluded home on an island where he thinks they will be safe. Danger and mystery follows Laurie around, though (it wouldn’t be a silly little mystery without that), and she must find out what all the intrigue is about. She nearly gets killed in the process.

While this book was OK, I’ve noticed that Aunt Dimity is becoming less of a character. The earlier books featured the relationship between Laurie and Dimity, and found Laurie calling on her spectral friend for everything from love advice to some other-worldly investigations. In this book, Laurie did most of the stuff herself, with Dimity making a token appearance to “check things out from this side.” It was underwhelming to say the least. I hope this trend does not continue.

–Adrienne

Published in: on August 17, 2007 at 1:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Fourth Bear

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5/5

Very clever, and especially fun if you know a lot about nursery rhymes.  This is the crime story version of what really happened to Goldilocks.

There is a town where nursery rhyme characters live and interactive with normal people.  Given the unique problems and issues this segment of the population deals with, a division of the police force is put in charge of solving crimes relating to this minority group.  Some of the police in this division are nursery rhyme characters themselves, allowing them to really understand the culture.

In this story you get to know Goldilocks, the Gingerbread Man, and a host of other minor nursery rhyme characters.  Detective Jack Spratt, mired in bureaucracy, takes a missing persons case and attempts to find Goldilocks while dodging murder attempts from the Gingerbread Man, someone Spratt had previously put away.  In addition, he tries to figure out the mystery behind the story Goldilocks was working on when she disappeared.  It is about the world of giant pickle growing, which I bet you didn’t know was a competitive sport!

This book would be suitable for any child old enough to understand the language its written in.  It is written as a true crime story, but with a tongue-in-cheek feel to it that will keep you amused.  It is a sequel to The Big Over Easy, which I also recommend.

-TC

Published in: on August 13, 2007 at 4:37 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Big Over Easy

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5/5

Very clever, and especially fun if you know a lot about nursery rhymes. This is the crime story version of what really happened to Humpty Dumpty when he sat on the wall.

There is a town where nursery rhyme characters live and interactive with normal people. Given the unique problems and issues this segment of the population deals with, a division of the police force is put in charge of solving crimes relating to this minority group. Some of the police in this division are nursery rhyme characters themselves, allowing them to really understand the culture.

In this story you get to know Humpty Dumpty, who it turns out is a womanizer who was really more clever with money that you’d probably have given him credit for. When he turns up in pieces at the bottom of his sitting wall, the Nursery Crime division is called in. Detective Jack Spratt takes the case, and even though sometimes he seems to bumble his way through it like Inspector Gadget would, he is very tenacious about getting the bad guy(s). There are plenty of great laughs along the way, and this book would be suitable for any child old enough to understand the language its written in.

It is written as a true crime story, but with a tongue-in-cheek feel to it that will keep you amused. There is also a sequel, called The Fourth Bear, that I recommend.

-TC

See Adrienne’s review of this book!

Published in: on August 13, 2007 at 4:26 pm  Comments (1)  

The Nanny Diaries

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3/5

The first-person-ness of this book was a bit distracting, but was probably the best way to tell this story because it makes you feel like it could be a friend venting to you, which is much of what this book is.

The premise: a young woman is trying to graduate from NYU with a child development degree, and so to make a living she takes jobs being a part-time nanny for rich families. This book follows her from the start to the end of a single gig doing this. The story mostly makes rich people look ridiculous. They apparently have no parenting skills, (or any desire to gain any), and they leave much of their lives up to consultants who tell them what to do. Also, the poor children are over-scheduled to an extreme degree, leaving them with little time to be children. Not a feel-good kind of story, but it will make you laugh at times and it is well-written if a bit disjointed timeline-wise.

Also, if you’re clever, you’ll make many parallels between how the wife treats her help with how the husband treats his wives. Of coure I just mean in the book, not that every rich person acts like that. This book is like a literal stereotype, and since I don’t know many rich people I really can’t speak to the reality behind that stereotype. Also, if you’re rich, you could very well find this book too offensive to read. You’ve been warned.

-TC

Published in: on August 13, 2007 at 1:07 pm  Leave a Comment  

Throne of Jade

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3 Stars

This here’s the sequel to His Majesty’s Dragon (which, it seems, has also been released under the title Temeraire), and the second in an ever-expanding series.

In Throne of Jade, the dragon Temeraire and his crew travel to China to uncover his mysterious origins. Grand adventure and page-turning intrigue ensue.

Unfortunately, ToJ is not as good as its predecessor. Part of what I liked about HMD was the novelty of historic fiction being interwoven with draconic fantasy. While this book has a lot good features … it’s like the second seaon of Lost. It’s still good, but the freshness has faded and you worry that it’s only downhill from here. Hopefully, the series will pull a 24 (season 4) and rebound into excellecy, instead of flailing incoherently into obscurity, a la The X-files. I guess I will just have to read and see, after a short break.

ben

Published in: on August 12, 2007 at 6:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Subtle Knife

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4 Stars

This is the second book in His Dark Materials series, and it is a great example of the middle bit of a trilogy. The first book, The Golden Compass, told the story of Lyra, a young girl in a parallel universe who embarks on an adventure. This second book continues her story, sort of. The Subtle Knife switches points of view from Lira to our new hero, Will. He lives in our universe, is about Lyra’s age, and the story opens as Will is hiding his obviously disturbed mother from an unknown force. As Will at the tender age of 12 attempts to find his way out of a very grown up situation, he stumbles upon a window into another dimension where he can hide. There he meets Lyra, who, at the end of the last book, followed her father through the opening in the Aurora.

While this story is a continuation of the last, I like how the author switches from Lyra’s point of view to Will’s. We no longer are privy to Lyra’s secret talks with her daemon, but know what Will is thinking and feeling. The story progresses in true trilogy style, with The Subtle Knife being wrought with strife and ending on a very low note. What is nice about this entire series, though, is each book can stand on its own to a certain extent; there are two major storylines in each: the over-arching story of Lord Asriel’s rebellion against the Authority (of which we get more detail in this book), and the more contained story unique to each book. In the first, it was the story of Lyra and her adventures while trying to reach her father. In the second, it was the story of Will, and his adventures while trying to reach his father. A nice parallel there..our two heroes engaged in identical missions in separate worlds. While the common storyline remains unfinished at the end of this book, Will’s story ends neatly, if unpleasantly, and leaves the final book to take on the main story.

–Adrienne

Published in: on August 12, 2007 at 9:01 am  Leave a Comment  

Summerland

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1.5 Stars

Ok. Gah. Alright. *Breath* Well. So there I am, perusing the children’s section (again) and looking for a brightly-colored, interesting cover with a grabbing synopsis to take with me back to my office. There’s nothing better during a busy day than to lose yourself in a fantastical world of magical beings and adventure. Best lunch ever! So I stumble upon Summerland, and it has all the required points: bright cartoonish cover showing a group of young people in a flying car, traveling over a countryside with the hint of fantasy and magic. The summary was even better–a young boy is dragged into the adventure of a lifetime when he finds a way to follow tree branches into another world. Ooohh! Neat! I bet there’s an unlikely hero, a coming of age, and a grand adventure! What fun! Isn’t it horrible when your hopes are dashed? Let me explain.

This book had it all–a beautifully imagined world populated by giants and gnomes and interesting beasts. The young boy from our time is, of course, the outcast with few friends and an inventor father, and he must travel into this new world to save his father from the canine threat that has kidnapped him for his mind. Fun! However, there was one major issue I had with the story–the author’s weird obsession with baseball. The entire book was based on baseball. The story starts with our young hero wanting to quit little league, and his father wanting him to stick with it. Not unsusual…baseball is boring, and the kid wasn’t any good. The first chapter is a tedious account of the little league game. We’re talking a hit by hit, play by play commentary, focusing primarily on how bad this one little boy is at the game. After untold pages of this, the game limps to an end, and we can continue our story…which involves the boy talking to his father about baseball, the father coaching the boy in baseball, the boy’s friends trying to help, and the coach yelling at the boy about baseball. Oh dear lord. It can’t get worse, right?

The story finally gets going as the boy’s father is kidnapped, and a gnome-elf thing approaches the boy and tells him the secret of inter-world travel. Then the boy is approached by a baseball scout. A scout. For baseball. I guess this is the Yoda-type character meant to lead the boy through his coming trials and tribulations. The scout explains mysteries of life to the boy using every baseball analogy in the book, then sends him on his way into another world, armed with a bat and glove. A bat and glove!

The boy proceeds to travel with his closet friends and newly found magical creatures through the new world, where they encounter lots of resistance and must overcome many hurdles. Do they do this by fighting? Wits? Sheer brain power? Of course not! Each and every problem is overcome by, wait for it, a game of baseball. Seriously! We’re talking “hey, a band of giants is going to eat us…let’s play a game of baseball to see if they will! The winners get to do whatever they want!” And are these games just mentioned in passing? No way! We get the hit-by-hit, play-by-play tedium that made the first chapter so damn memorable. Just kill me.

Well, the story ends in good fantasy fashion, with the boy growing up and magically becoming a baseball master, and everyone lives happily ever after. Except me. Because I just spent a million hours (this book was around 700 pages long) reading a book that had all the potential of becoming a great new fantasy, but ending up being bogged down in endless baseball descriptions. Now, I don’t really like baseball, but I don’t outright hate it. Sure, there are usually other things I’d rather be doing than watching a game on TV, but I’ve been to many a game live and it can be a fun outing. It’s not just the fact that the book was full of baseball. That could have worked, had the author spent less time explaining every single moment in the countless games, and used it more as a theme. He started this in the beginning, when he had the Yoda-scout explain that baseball was a way to live a slow summer afternoon. That was nice. I didn’t even mind the scout thing and the analogies between baseball and life. There was a great story in there…it was just impeded by all those innings and details about pop flies and stolen bases. It could have been so much better!

My final word on the matter (maybe): if you love listening to baseball on the radio and you love fantasy books, buy this one immediately. If you’re more concerned about a well-written story that moves, avoid this like the plague.

–Adrienne

Published in: on August 12, 2007 at 8:59 am  Leave a Comment  

Muletrain to Maggody

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2 Stars

Oh, silly little mysteries. This Maggody series is the epitome of the silly little mystery, but it isn’t a very good story in general. I’m not sure what it is about the books that rubs me the wrong way, but reading each new entry is more like a chore than a treat. At least it’s a fast read.

The Maggody series is about a small town, Maggody, which is policed by a woman from the big city. She grew up in town, married and moved to New York, then returned when her marriage fell apart. Her mother got her the job of chief of police for the town (not a great honor since there is only one policewoman in the station) and she spends her time alternately dreaming of getting away and half heartedly chasing whatever bad guy presents himself. She also must deal with the characters in town, not the least of which is her overbearing and bar-owning mother.
Muletrain to Maggody is unmemorable, really. A civil war reenactment descends on the town, and our heroin must deal with the craziness of the participants, while investigating a suspicious death that may or may not have to do with hidden gold. Of course various members of the community must stick their noses into the business and the good chief has to work everything out.

I’m not sure what it is that makes this series so mediocre…perhaps the lack of unique characters or the utterly predictable plot. Whatever the problem, these books have yet to grip me in a way that makes me look forward to the next sequel.

–Adrienne

Published in: on August 12, 2007 at 8:57 am  Leave a Comment  

The Road

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4 Stars

I spent the weekend in St. Michael’s, Maryland in a beautiful house overlooking the bay. Yay family! My aunt, the owner of the house, handed me a book as soon as I got there and said she read it in one sitting–she just couldn’t put it down. Now, this is a work-a-holic woman who spends most of her time in her office and on the phone during the week, and the rest of the time doing chores around her house, so when she recommended a book that she “couldn’t put down” I thought it would be a grand adventure.
The Road is an interesting bit of literature. It is the story of the end of the world as we know it, but it is told in a unique manner. The story revolves around a man (only known as “the man” or “Papa”) and his boy (only known as “the boy) who are traveling south in some unknown country after some unknown tragedy that ended civilization. The author does not go into detail about what caused the situation, nor does he expound upon the plight of the characters. It is a rather simple story of a hard journey to outrun the winter and find enough food to make it through the next day. The man and his son scavenge a desolate land where nothing is alive…no animals, no plants, just displaced people. As the story progresses, the reader gets a sense that the pivotal event took place several years before–just a few days before the boy was born, and death and destruction have continued since. The boy’s mother kills herself and the father goes on the run to avoid a little-known threat that is not explained and only seen twice throughout the story; both encounters end horrifically and violently.

I liked this story and I liked the author’s style. This really was a typical end-of-the-world, if-we-don’t-stop-we’ll-all-die type of warning book that has been popular for decades, but the author approached it in such a way as to make it much more terrifying and unsettling than any other I’ve read. He didn’t give detailed scenes; he didn’t explain the political or social causes of the horror; he didn’t even describe what was living and what wasn’t. Everything was just there, revealed to the reader as the two main characters experienced it, underscored with a definite message about the nature of living and what humans are capable of. The author used no quotation marks, which left the reader uncertain as to who was speaking or if it was a thought. This uncertainty put the reader on edge, and heightened the general horror of the story. The lack of detail allowed for the imagination to run wild, and the few detailed glimpses of actual horror just bolstered the imagination instead of dampening it.

I recommend this book as an emotionally moving piece. It sticks with you during the read and well after. I read it in one sitting, not only because it was good, but because I knew that I couldn’t put it down without knowing how the horror resolved itself.

–Adrienne

Published in: on August 12, 2007 at 8:54 am  Leave a Comment  

Son of a Witch

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5/5

I liked this book even better than its prequel, Wicked.  It continues the story from the point of view of someone who was a child in the first book.  It switches back and forth from the past to the present for the first half or so of the book, and does so very cleverly.  When the present is being narrated you are wondering how the characters got to this point, and when the past is being narrated you are wondering how that past led to the present you’ve read about.  Its all very interesting and keeps you into the story.

This book is even more adult than the last, including more than hints of the adult themes that were hinted at in the first book.  There is less political intrigue, which made the second story make more sense to me but makes it feel a little like the author abandoned a piece of the first story without explanation.

The ending is clearly a segue to another sequel, and I would love to read it if there ever is one.  I had a lot of fun with this book, and even think I caught some subtle references to some of the “Wizard of Oz” sequels, including how Ozma was kept hidden.

-TC

Published in: on August 8, 2007 at 11:16 am  Leave a Comment