Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Sidekicks Review

Book talk: When Captain Amazing gets injured while battling supervillains he takes a forced vacation to recover and announces that he'll be holding auditions for a new sidekick soon.  Everyone is excited by this announcement, even Captain Amazing's pets.  Years ago Static Cat was his sidekick, so they're hoping that he'll take on one of his pets again.  Metal Mutt thinks his special abilities will put him at the head of the pack, and even the new pet chameleon's camouflage abilities could come in handy, but fluffy the hamster doesn't have any super powers.  That won't stop him from trying though. Fluffy finds Static Cat and gets him to agree to train him how to fight crime despite his size and lack of powers.  And when an old arch nemesis reappears Captain Amazing will need all of them if he wants to make it out alive.

Rocks my socks: This was a fun twist on comic heroes with pets taking the lead.  There was a light-hearted ease to the story that pulled me in and I always enjoy stories of small characters using their intelligence to fight off larger enemies.  Santat is sure to imbue the story with lessons like these as well as humor with Static Cat giving the advice that "a hero can't rely on his powers alone.  You gotta use your brain." and Fluffy proudly declaring that he followed that advice and was able to defeat an enemy without getting in a fight. Themes of making up with friends and sticking with family guide the narrative.  I loved Santat's author bio at the end in the form of an application for Captain Amazing's sidekick.  This fun and humorous bio is representative of the book as a whole and is why it will appeal to kids.

Rocks in my socks: The characters are drawn very expressively, but the dialogue can be a bit generic and flat. The characters are typical archetypes and the plot straightforward as well.

Every book its reader: This isn't the strongest comic I've read recently, but the pet theme and humor (much of it bodily) will appeal to many third graders I know who go through comics quickly and are always on the look out for more.  I'd give it to one of them without hesitation, but it wouldn't be the comic I use to introduce the genre to someone and I probably wouldn't recommend it to anyone older than fifth grade.

Sidekicks by Dan Santat

Buy it or check it out today!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Night Circus Review

Book talk: Celia is a magician in a circus. But the Night Circus is no ordinary circus and Celia is no ordinary magician.  Unlike many stage conjurers who rely on tricks and manipulation, Celia really can perform magic.  She can turn origami birds into real ones, change the cut and color of a dress without touching it, and put broken things back together from a clock to her own body.  But she's not the only true magician who has an influence upon the circus.  Ever since she was a child she has trained for a challenge that would test everything she had ever learned and her opponent has been training as well.  The circus is their battlefield and the war rages on for years.  But in the end, one must win.

Rocks my socks: The world of the Night Circus is just as enthralling for readers as it is for those who visit it in the book.  The tents hold wonderfully creative magical attractions that range far beyond any real or imaginary circus I have ever read about.  Morgenstern describes them in beautiful language and with a complete range of sensory detail creating a world that is a pleasure to luxuriate in.  The novel, much like a circus, has an ensemble cast with many unique and interesting characters.  While Celia isn't the strongest female character I've read she's still pretty tough--she even stabs a dagger through her own hand at one point and magician or not that's got to hurt.  Plus I love the idea of her magical ability to alter dresses--when people ask me what superpower I'd want that's my new answer.  Extra points for the scene where Marco creates trees out of poetry.  Despite his faults that would be enough to woo me!

Rocks in my socks: The chronology of the novel threw me off at first with the entire thing told in present tense and three distinct  time lines that took me a bit to pull out (my tendency to skip over chapter titles when I'm engaged in a story probably didn't help with this as the dates are at the beginning of each chapter.)  There's one storyline following Celia and Marco as they grow up and the circus is formed, one that follows a boy, Bailey who visits the circus, and one told in second person and set in the present day.  It took me a while to figure out how they all fit together and while I liked the descriptions of the circus in the second person account I'm not a huge fan of second person narration in general.  Too often when it said 'you' do such and such I thought no I really wouldn't and it took me out of the story.  The ending bugged me in particular when it said that 'you' are given a card with an e-mail address on it.  Really?  Was that entirely necessary? Morgenstern also had a character sit down to tell the story at the end and start off with the first sentence of the book, implying that the whole thing was the story this character was telling.  It seemed like a cheap, cliched way to end a book that was otherwise so wonderfully unique.  (Highlight for spoiler) It is also the second book I've read recently where a boy and girl who are competing fall in love and both manage to win in a sense in the end.  Sometimes life requires hard choices and sometimes people lose and I want stories that acknowledge that fact instead of whipping out last minute deus ex machinas darnit!

Every book its reader: The language and concepts of the novel as well as the non-linear narrative would make it difficult for most kids younger than seventh or eighth grade to follow and even then only if they're strong readers.  There's also a sex scene, although it's far from graphic, and occasional swearing.  It was really written as an adult fiction novel, but mature teens who are strong readers would enjoy it as well.  I'd give it to fans of fantasy and circuses who enjoy rich world-building.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Buy it or check it out today!

Bonus quotes:
"The Burgess sisters arrive together.  Tara and Lainie do a little bit of everything.  Sometimes dancers, sometimes actresses.  Once they were librarians, but that is a subject they will only discuss if heavily intoxicated."

"Stories have changed, my dear boy...There are no more battles between good and evil, no monsters to slay, no maidens in need of rescue.  Most maidens are perfectly capable of rescuing themselves in my experience, at least the ones worth something, in any case."

"Good and evil are a great deal more complex than a princess and a dragon, or a wolf and a scarlet-clad little girl.  And is not the dragon the hero of his own story?  Is not the wolf simply acting as a wolf should act?  Though perhaps it is a singular wolf who goes to such lengths as to dress as a grandmother to toy with its prey."

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Mini Reviews

These are books that I've read recently that for one reason or another I don't want to do a full review of.  I'll just write a quick bit about each so I can still say I've reviewed all the books I've read at the end of the year.

I'm not doing a full review because even though I don't know John Green I've watched enough of his videos that I feel like I do and so I don't think I am capable of giving an unbiased opinion.  I will say that I picked it up on my way home from work on the day it was released and then read the whole thing before going to bed.  I was a bit under the weather so between my running nose and the sad content of the book I went through an entire box of tissues.  If you don't like tear-jerkers though don't let that turn you off.  I normally don't either but this book made me feel 'all the things' (as John Green himself said) not just sad.  I never felt like I do with so many other tear-jerkers (I'm looking at you Mitch Albom!) that he was writing for the purpose of making me cry and making the easy choices to do so.  Instead I felt like Green just really needed to tell this story and he couldn't tell it without the sad bits--that the tears were not an end in themselves but a side effect of being really involved with characters who were just living their lives.  The narrative style certainly isn't for everyone but if, like me, you like it when people point out the incorrect use of 'literally' and you find comments like "he was a tenured professor in the Department of Slightly Crooked Smiles" amusing then this is the book for you my friend!  Even if you don't pick up the book I strongly suggest you start following the Vlogbrothers and DFTBA! You can see the author read the first chapter aloud here: http://youtu.be/F_vFvbfn9Fs
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green: Buy it or check it out today!

While I enjoy this series I put it in the category of mindless fun and so my expectations for it are never exactly high.  Even so this latest installment disappointed me.  Maybe I just wasn't in the right mood for it, but the previous book in the series wrapped up a plot line that had been happening since the beginning and seemed to end things in a satisfying way, so I thought this book would reboot the series a bit.  Instead Clare just took the few loose ends remaining and unravelled them further which felt a bit forced to me and felt like a missed opportunity to introduce some new plots or even characters. The thing that annoyed me most however was the relationship between the romantic leads.  I was willing to go along with the crazy plot twists that kept them apart for the first three books but now I feel like Clare is just making up ridiculous barriers to the relationship while still prattling on about how they're meant to be together and my patience for it is wearing thin.  Just let them be together already!  With all they've been through she could have at least let them be happy for half a book before creating a new source of tension between them.  Honestly despite their apparent overpowering and undying love for each other if one of them came to me for advice I'd tell them to end it because nothing is worth this much drama.  They're young--they'll find love again before too long.  And Clare needs to realize that there are more ways to get readers involved with characters and turning pages than leaving their relationship status undetermined.  She needs to leave the world of fan fiction behind and learn how to write non-relationship drama plots.  With that said though I'll still probably read the next book.  I have no self-control.
City of Fallen Angels by Cassandra Clare: Buy it or check it out today!

Reading a book from Clare's other series so soon after reading one from the first made me realize how much weaker the female characters are in this one.  I realize it's set in the Victorian era so there's some justification of it, but still both series have a female lead and a girl who lives in the headquarters and in Mortal Instruments the lead doesn't shy away from fights even before she's really trained for it and has a single mother and chooses to train to be a warrior and the resident girl is already a fierce warrior portrayed as just as strong if not more than the guy characters.  Where as in the Infernal Devices the main character is forced into training purely as a self-defense precaution and feels scandalized by wearing boys clothes and guilty for acting upon her desires and constantly defines herself by her relationships to the men in her life and the resident girl is vain and conceited and completely uninterested in fighting or being helpful in any way and is easily swayed by a man.  The thing that annoyed me most however was that (highlight for spoiler) Tessa gets engaged at the end of this novel supposedly to make her life more secure because heaven forbid she be left on her own without a man in her life.  I realize people married younger back then but it still annoys me-especially after the teen couple on Glee got engaged-it's a frakkin epidemic!  Hopefully the female characters will get stronger at the series progresses.
Clockwork Prince by Cassandra Clare: Buy it or check it out today!

Maybe I've just read too much series fiction lately so I'm more critical of it, but while I enjoyed this novel I didn't enjoy it quite as much as the first installment.  This book takes place in an entirely different place than the first for most of the story and while it was an interesting city I was eager to read more of the museum and disappointed that there wasn't much of it in this installment.  I liked the new characters, but once again there were already so many characters in the first novel that adding even more just confused things.  I don't feel like I got to know the new characters that well because Tanner kept flashing back to the old ones and her attempts to include everyone stretched the narrative a thin and left me feeling like I didn't get enough of anyone.  The characters didn't have as big arcs as in the first novel and their development was thinner.  The first novel also ended satisfyingly with the plot being completed while leaving some loose ends for the next novel whereas this one leaves with the characters in a much more precarious situation and I am not a fan of cliff-hangers. (Curse you Westerfeld!)  Still I did enjoy the quirks of the new city and their Mardi Grasesque festival of lies and I also enjoyed the new characters--they even added a talking cat which I'm a sucker for.  I'll just have to hope that there's more of Pounce in the next novel.  You know I can't resist a good Artful Dodger character.
City of Lies by Lian Tanner: Buy it or check it out today!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Scorpio Races Review

Book talk: "It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die." It's time for the annual Scorpio Races where riders race on horses that came from the sea and long to return there.  Some horses may be overcome with this desire and run back to the surf, drowning their riders in the process.  Some may simply eat their riders, making the surf red with blood.  Some riders may be trampled beneath the horses' sharp hooves.  The races may kill several people, but they all ride anyway because no matter how likely it is that some will die at least one person is guaranteed to win.  So they race for all that they're worth--for fortune,  for fame, for glory, and for their lives.

Rocks my socks: It's so refreshing to see a young adult novel that's about supernatural creatures that aren't werewolves or vampires!  There is a dearth of kelpie literature out there which makes this book all the more special.  To make this book even rarer in the YA market it also doesn't have a love triangle in it.  I know, I was shocked as well.  Instead it has a really sweet romance where the characters get to know each other and help each other out and gain each other's trust instead of, you know, stalking each other or acting like a jerk.   The story alternates between both characters and each have a distinct voice and background that informs their actions.  Both are orphans, but on an island plagued by carnivorous horses that isn't all that rare.  The island is full of interesting characters and the tension remains high throughout as they train for the races that may give them their heart's desire or kill them.  I also love that it has a strong female lead in the form of Puck who is the first woman to ride in the races.  She's flawed, like all the characters in the book, but her courage and willingness to fight for what she wants is admirable.

Rocks in my socks: For a novel with a setting as harsh as this one's, the ending was a bit neat for me.  It wasn't tied-up-with-a-bow-on-top neat and if it was another novel I might not have this complaint but it wasn't another novel.  In this novel it's set up from the beginning that people regularly die and the island they all live on is a harsh mistress but worth the risk. A major source of tension in the novel is that both Puck and Sean have everything riding on the races and even though they love each other they can't both win. (highlight for slight spoilers)  But then in a way they both do. Objectively I was disappointed, but emotionally I must admit I was a bit pleased because I was so involved with the characters and I wanted them to be happy.

Every book its reader: The book is rather violent but no more violent than The Hunger Games and I've seen pretty young kids reading that.  Puck and Sean never go farther than a couple kisses but there is a bit of innuendo with one character turning up in the morning with lipstick on his collar and another commenting that that's why he doesn't look like he slept much and one character comforting another by saying that a year from now they'll have so and so in their bed (trying not to spoil too much.)  Those are the types of things that could easily pass over a reader's head unless they're old enough to get the references though so I wouldn't be too concerned about the book on that front.  All in all it depends on the kid but if they can handle Hunger Games then they should enjoy this novel.  Don't be fooled by the horse on the cover and give it to some third grader looking for a book about ponies though.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Buy it or check it out today!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Blackhope Enigma Review

Book talk: Sunni was used to her step-brother misbehaving, but this was a bit much even for her.  One minute he was loudly rambling on while she and her classmate were trying to concentrate on their school project and the next he's gone.  They're in an old castle room with no windows and only one way out but she didn't see him leave through the door.  And what was that strange spark of light in the painting on the wall just after he disappeared?  There's only one solution: as crazy as it sounds he must have disappeared through the painting.  Her step-mom will kill her if she doesn't bring him back, so of course it's up to her to follow him through and find a way back out again.  But the painting has many layers of mystery and she has to journey through each before she can leave. Before Sunni knows it she's being kidnapped, racing through mazes filled with beasts, and battling pirates on the sea.  If she and her brother survive the mess he's gotten them into, she's going to kill him.  

Rocks my socks: Flavin creates a wonderfully fantastic world inside the painting that is full of one adventure after another.  Despite the dangers she keeps the world light with humor ("He looked like someone from the TV programs Dean's mom loved, where snooty men rode around on horses and women sat in mansions waiting for one to propose.")  I liked the character of Sunni and her relationships with both her brother and the classmate who follows them through.  Despite the fact that he's annoying sometimes she clearly loves her step-brother and protects him fearlessly saving the day multiple times.  I appreciate the fact that her classmate recognizes this about her and respects it and when someone else accuses her of being a damsel in distress he thinks "Sunni was hardly a girl who expected to be rescued." Instead of feeling intimidated by this, he likes that about her.  

Rocks in my socks: There is a large cast of characters and so for the supporting roles Flavin gets a bit sloppy with the characterization.  The villain character is particularly poorly executed with his complete disregard for the safety of the main characters (who are after all children) never explained, except for the vague justification that he's looking for lost paintings to sell and get rich off of.  The dialogue is also pretty flat  and unrealistic with the characters saying exactly what they mean and getting straight to the point. ("Why should I change?  I'm pretty marvelous as I am.  Always was more marvelous than you, anyway.  Better at drawing, more popular with girls."... btw I'm the vain villain in case you missed that) The plot moves very quickly from one adventure to the next while rearranging the combinations of various characters like they were pieces in a a kaleidoscopic.  Someone is always being kidnapped or left behind or stranded on a desert isle but then immediately rescued.  There was altogether too much motion too quickly for my taste.  

Every book its reader: I'd give this to 3rd - 5th graders looking for a fast-paced fantasy adventure.  For those who like their books heavy on the plot and light on the characterization.  

The Blackhope Enigma by Teresa Flavin

Buy it or check it out today!

Sunday, March 4, 2012


A few months back I decorated a bag for a friend's birthday present.  We started hanging out because of a common love for Dr. Who.  She had an iTunes subscription to the latest season so I'd go over to her place to watch it so I didn't have to wait for it to come out on Netflix and she'd tolerate my chattering and spoiling the episodes by predicting what was going to happen.  We're both also fans of the new Sherlock BBC series with Benedict Cumberbatch.  So, I thought of a way to combine the two to make a unique gift for my new friend.
A dalek cosplaying as Sherlock because not even aliens can resist the siren call of Benedict Cumberbatch
To make the bag I used freezer paper stencils to get the basic shape of the dalek, hat, and pipe.  I then appliqued them on using fusible interfacing.  Then came the time-consuming part of stitching all the details in by hand using a picture for reference.  I used a back stitch so that it would look like continuous lines. I had to take the ol' seam ripper out and start certain areas over again several times because they just didn't look right.  I am not good at free-hand drawing so it didn't end up being an exact copy, but enough to get the idea across.
Perspective is hard!
I then added the other appliques like the pipe, magnifying glass, and hat.  I used a bit of black ribbon for the magnifying glass handle and fabric scraps for the rest.  This is the same grey, white, and brown material I bought in Scotland and used on the napkins I made this summer.  I have an entire dress made out of the hat material.  Even though I attached them securely with fusible interfacing I stitched over them to be extra sure. I was careful to leave the hat flap unattached on the deer stalker when ironing the hat on and instead went back later and stitched it in place folded up.
Let's use that magnifying glass to cover up the crappy arm/blaster gun I made--perfect!
Next I added trim to spice things up a bit.  I put a black ribbon along the bottom and added buttons for the dalek's sense globes (I had no idea what those were until I looked it up just now in a handy dalek anatomy chart. You learn something new every day.)  I thought that this would add dimension to the dalek, help me avoid trying to stitch circles, and I like the idea of using adorable buttons to make a killing machine.
Cute as a button
Finally, I cut out a speech bubble and attached it with interfacing and stitching again because apparently I'm paranoid.  I changed the iconic dalek "Exterminate!" into "Investigate!" for my adorable deadly cosplayer.  I didn't quite get it centered, but by this time it was late the night before I had to give it to my friend and I have work in the morning so I let it slide.
My handwriting with a needle is marginally better than with a pencil--true fact!
And I then I was done and I had a lovely unique gift to give to my new friend.  Since then we've grown much closer and I like to think that it's all because I intimidated her into being friends with me with my skills at sewing cold-blooded killers in lighter moments.  Enjoy!

All pictures in this post taken by me and published under a Creative Commons License
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Super Sad True Love Story Review

Book talk: Lenny Abramov is not going to die.  He made this decision at the end of a business trip to Rome when he met the beautiful Eunice Park.  His job at Post-Human Services means that he knows all about the cutting  edge of indefinite life extension.  If he can only save up enough to make the payments, he can enter himself and Eunice into the program.  There are a few problems, though.  For one, his business trip to Rome was not exactly successful.  He didn't convince any HNWIs (High Net Worth Individuals) to sign up for indefinite life extension.  The digital otter that interviewed him as part of the "Welcome Back, Pad'ner" program for  Americans who have been abroad misheard him and thought that he said he had been hanging out with Somalians and flagged him. When he does return to his country it's only to find that anyone with a low credit ranking is in danger of deportation, the war with Venezuela has escalated, the dollar is about to collapse, and the homeless and angry masses are camping out in New York and threatening to riot.  And the last major problem with his plan?  Eunice Park doesn't seem to like him.  Still, in spite of it all Lenny is determined to prevail: "That's right, I am never going to die, caro diario.  Never, never, never, never.  And you can go to hell for doubting me."

Rocks my socks: I am a sucker for a good satire and this snarky, prescient novel certainly fits the bill.  The novel takes place in the future, but is really a commentary on today's society and what will happen if we continue on the path we're going down. In Lenny's world everyone carries an äppärät around with them that they can (and often do) use for everything from shopping to communication to rating the attractiveness of everyone in the area (and seeing your own rating.) Our everyman is Lenny who has fallen behind while on his trip in Rome and is nearing 30. His half of the account is told through old-fashioned diary entries. Eunice is younger and more immersed in the culture so her half is told through GlobalTeens messages (the Facebook of the day.) I love this epistolary style and how different both their narratives are based on the method used to write them. In this world consumerism and sexuality rule with the latest fashion trend being onionskin jeans (so named because they are see-through.) At first I thought Shteyngart was a bit pessimistic and unrealistic in many of his projections--everyone can see your most recent purchases leading Eunice to be disgusted by Lenny's recent smelly paper book purchases--and I thought the idea that anyone would give up this much privacy a bit preposterous. Then I bought a new sewing machine on Amazon and the confirmation screen provided me with links to 'share your purchase' on facebook, twitter, or e-mail. Perhaps the problem isn't that Shteyngart is too pessimistic but that I'm too old-fashioned and naive like Lenny.

Rocks in my socks: I loved both this book and Absurdistan although I liked this one a bit better. I think I would have liked it even more though if I hadn't read Absurdistan first. They main characters felt too similar to me considering their different circumstances and it bugged me a bit. I kept feeling like I had already read the book even though I hadn't. I appreciated the different perspective of Eunice but hopefully Shteyngart will change things up more in his next novel.

Every book its reader: I'd definitely save this one for adults. I'd give it to fans of speculative fiction, dystopias, and satire.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

Buy it or check it out today!