Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Steifvater

When I saw the title of this third book in Maggie Steifvater's series the Raven Cycle, I thought the main character, Blue Sargeant, was going to be introduced to somebody named Lily. "Blue, Lily. Lily, Blue." This is not the case. The words come from an eerie song chanted by a spooky ancient being entombed in the bottom of a Virginian cave. Much better.

I haven't been subtle in my gushing love for this series thus far. You can read my review of book one, The Raven Boys, and of book two, The Dream Thieves. The third installment doesn't disappoint. If you haven't read the first two, and want to avoid all spoilers, you should leave now. I will, of course, try to keep the crucial information to a minimum, but things slip out.

Blue, a child raised in a home by her psychic mother and mother's psychic partners, has by now grown close to all the Raven Boys as they continue their search for the illusive buried Welsh King, Glendower. With Blue's mother vanished underground and possibly in trouble, Blue's needs the boys more than ever.

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Friday, February 27, 2015

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins

On the island of Here, everything is neat and tidy and orderly. It's a calm, Stepfordian community where no one ever asks questions and no one ever deviates from the norm.

Dave fits in to Here pretty well. Like everyone else, he keeps his little nonconformities in check, covering his baldness with a toupee and keeping his mouth shut about his uncertainty about his employer. But there is a single hair on Dave's body that resists his efforts to be orderly: a single, stubborn upper-lip hair that refuses to be plucked, waxed, shaved, or trimmed. No matter what he does to that hair, it regrows in exactly the same place and size. The doctors can't figure it out -- but then again, it's only one hair, so Dave does his best to ignore it and carry on with his perfectly orderly life.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Brotherhood by Anne Westrick

The South during Reconstruction was not a very pleasant place to be - as a southerner. The South  was occupied by  U.S. soldiers (formerly Union soldiers) who were not very interested in making life any easier for the "rebels" they were supervising as they rebuilt their cities, businesses, and homes after the Civil War. Brotherhood is an interesting read as a story told from the view of a young southern boy. Westrick provides  descriptions of what life was like during that time period as a southerner and how difficult life was under the occupation of the conquering Union Army.
With his father dead, the "Yankees" occupying his city, and the newly freed African American men taking the  jobs created by Reconstruction, life is difficult for Shad and his family. The discontent of the community is palpable and gives rise to the Ku Klux Klan as an organization "dedicated to supporting the needs of the widows and families of fallen Confederate soldiers." Shad and his brother join up, Shad thinking it a good thing to take care of those around him. As things get out of control, Shad starts to realize that the Klan is dangerous and he must decide where his loyalties lie - family, Klan, or what  he feels is right in his own heart. I highly recommend this read!

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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Looking for Jack Kerouac by Barbara Shoup

There are many different ways to write about Jack Kerouac and I was beginning to think the world has very nearly seen all of them. But Barbara Shoup is one of my favorite YA writers, she has surprised me many times in the past, so when her new book Looking for Jack Kerouac came across my radar, I very much wanted to give it a look. As it turns out, in the hands of the right author, the Kerouac story still has some legs.

In 1964 Paul Carpetti is on a senior class trip to Washington DC when he picks up a copy of On the Road at a used bookstore. He reads it almost obsessively while in the city and all the way back to Indiana. Kerouac blows open everything Paul has thought about his future. As he graduates and gets a job at the local mill and his longtime girlfriend raises expectations about a pending engagement and marriage, the dream of the road becomes bigger and bigger. When a co-worker suggests they go find Kerouac in Florida, Paul jumps at the chance and they are off.

Shoup does a good job of chronicling the adventure south, some of which is quite harrowing and other parts involve sexy mermaids ala Weeki Wachee (where I have been and is totally awesome) (although, of course, I did not enjoy the sexy mermaid bits when I was there with my father and brother).

When the guys arrive in St. Petersburg they get a room at the YMCA and set out to find Kerouac. He, of course, is not at all as he was during the days of On the Road and after a confrontation with this author and his disappointed companion leaves, Paul finally, no longer traveling, sets out find himself which was probably the point all along. (And what On the Road is all about as well.)

There is a lot in Looking for Jack Kerouac about growing up; it is probably one of the better books I have read about deciding the life you want to live as opposed to the one that you seem destined to have. Paul is lost like every other high school graduate and even though he comes from a loving home he has no idea what he really wants or how to find something different from what he has assumed he would always have. In Florida on his own, as he gets to know Kerouac through good moments and bad, he makes other friends and begins to embark on the unlikeliest of futures. It's not all laid out, in fact the book ends with him mostly just deciding where he wants to live and the people he wants to be around, but it's exceedingly hopeful. Shoup gives readers a real Kerouac and real confusion; she makes clear that On the Road, like every other novel is just a story and not at all the full life of the man who wrote it.

I should also add that Shoup has two intriguing female characters in Looking for Jack Kerouac: Paul's girlfriend Kathy and the girl who befriends him in Florida, Ginny. Kathy seems in many respects to be a caricature of the early 60s woman; she is still on the path to marriage and family that he mother walked before her and determined to build a perfect home for Paul that will, she firmly believes, satisfy both of them. She is bewildered by the change in him after the senior trip and Shoup takes special care here, not making her a joke. Kathy had no reason to think that Paul would want something different; he never led her to believe that he would and so when he leaves her so abruptly for his road trip it's a major blow and one he deservedly feels a lot of guilt for later.

As to Ginny, she is the girl of the tomorrow. Surrounded by a boisterous family in St. Pete, she spends much of free time out on the water in her father's old boat doing research as she pursues a marine biology degree. Ginny wants to change the world and while she likes Paul, Shoup does not sell them as a couple. His reasons for staying in Florida are his own and not because he has gone from one girl to another. Ginny is a possible future, but no guarantee and what comes next for them would be anyone's guess.

As historical fiction, Looking for Jack Kerouac is a great ride. It's an authentic look at an American author who fought his own demons until the end and a young man who chose another path to facing his.

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Monday, February 23, 2015

The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

For roughly fifty years, the British Isles have been haunted by a Problem. Increasing numbers of ghosts are haunting homes and objects, with sometimes dangerous results. While adults might sense the ghosts, and can definitely be injured or even killed by them, they are unable to neutralize the ghosts. Children are the best at sensing ghosts, so psychic investigation agencies staffed by young people with strong Talents have sprung up to deal with the Problem.

Lucy Carlyle, who has been working as an operative since she was eight years old, is the newest employee at Lockwood & Co. in London. It's not the biggest agency, nor the best known, but its young founder, Anthony Lockwood, treasures the agency's independence. He and his employees have successfully dealt with difficult and tricky cases. They get the job donefor the most part, anyway. Still, Lockwood would like the agency to receive more acclaim, not to mention better, and more interesting, cases...

Unfortunately, the agency makes headlines for the wrong reasons after one job goes disastrously wrong. Even so, one of the richest men in the country makes Lockwood an offer that would significantly improve Lockwood & Co.'s reputation: investigateand survive a night inone of the most haunted private homes in England. It's a strange offer, but Lockwood agrees that he, Lucy, and Lockwood's only other employee, George, will spend a night at Combe Carey Hall, where strange and horrible deaths have occurred for centuries.

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Thursday, February 19, 2015

American Neolithic by Terence Hawkins

Several years ago a I wrote a review for Lives of the Monster Dogs, an odd, wonderful book that exists somewhere at the corner of speculative fiction and social critique. As a strange coincidence, Terence Hawkins reached out to me with a copy of his book, American Neolithic, after having read that review. American Neolithic, he explained, was inspired in part by the writing of Kristin Bakis and her Monster Dogs book.

American Neolithic is equally peculiar and wonderful in its premise: in a near future police state where a theologically tinged Homeland Security has supreme control over civil liberties and the court system, Raleigh, a jaded lawyer with a cynical, old-school sensibility and an affinity for lost cause cases, gets drawn into a high-profile murder case involving hip hop artist Newton Galileo and the member of his entourage left holding the gun -- Blingbling, a guy everyone thinks of as a half-witted dupe.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, Blingbling is really an honest-to-God Neanderthal, one of the last of a band of Neanderthals secretly surviving in hiding on the lower east side of Manhattan.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

This is one of those books that comes on soft like a feather but as you flip through the pages it starts to carry the weight of a sledgehammer.

Charlie is someone who'd rather avoid contact with other humans in his school. He walks home instead of taking the bus, he doesn't know how to interact with girls or jocks or any of the other cliched crap that gets thrown at you when you're sixteen.

Worst of all, he's about to start high school, and the dread of that new beginning hangs over his head like a black zeppelin filled with manure.

The story itself is written in a series of letters from Charlie to an anonymous person he simply calls "friend." Through these letters we slowly begin to learn about Charlie's life, how he really likes one of his teachers, a guy named Bill that gives him extra reading. Charlie writes essays about these books and gives them to Bill to read because Charlie would like to be a writer, it's the one thing he knows he is good at.

Other than that, we don't know very much about him. We know that his best friend committed suicide and that Charlie gets angry, very angry, and has trouble breathing and even passes out when things get too rough. There is, however, a much darker reason for the mental problems that he is suffering from.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Soccer is unquestionably the world's game and its legions of fans experience the highs and lows of each game and discuss the team feverishly all week. Some of the biggest stars of today came from humble backgrounds but they have used their skill to create a better life for themselves and their families. The game is not immune to real life concerns however and sadly sometimes politics becomes entwined with sports as occurred recently. Wars have been fought over results in soccer games and people have been killed over the outcome of matches.

In Eugene Yelchin's book Arcady's Goal, the title character lives in a rough camp for orphans in the Soviet Union in 1945. His parents have been deemed enemies of the state and he has been sent to live in a camp, guarded by tough armed guards and under the rule of the despot Butterball who organizes soccer exhibitions for Arcady to show off his skill. It is in one of these exhibitions that Arcady is spotted by an inspector called Ivan Ivanych. To his surprise the inspector returns to the camp with papers to adopt the young boy.

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Friday, February 13, 2015

Skin and Bones by Sherry Shahan

Skin and Bones

When Jack agrees to spend six weeks in an Eating Disorder Unit, he expects it to be a waste of time. Calling himself Bones at the insistence of his Rachael Ray—obsessed roommate, Lard, Jack makes friends, falls in love, and tries to get over this whole anorexia thing.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Mort(e) by Robert Repino

Between this book and Grasshopper Jungle I feel I've discovered my true weak spot: humanity at the mercy of mutant animals and insects.

Underground, for thousands of years, a colony of intelligent ants has been slowly, silently plotting their revenge against mankind. To do this they have found a way to turn the humans own pets into an army that will help bring about the war to end all wars.

At the heart of this story is a house cat named Sebastian who, before his emancipation, sees himself as the protector of the house. His human "parents" seem to be going through some troubles, not the least of which include his mother sleeping with the neighbor who owns a dog named Sheba. Sebastian and Sheba eventually form a loving bond all their own, but it comes to a chaotic and abrupt end when the animals become sentient and the war with the humans becomes violent. Sebastian, now named Mort(e) becomes a hero of the war and takes on dangerous missions in the hopes of finding Sheba.

Repino has a way of crawling inside the heads of all these creatures that surround us and shows us the world like we've never imagined it. Just the thought of a super breed of ants breeding and plotting for thousands of years is enough to creep me out, but then to have it all be part of a long plot to lull mankind into a false sense of superiority so they can came come back and take what they've long felt was their world to begin with...

It's crazy. But brilliant-crazy, entertaining-crazy, and a whole lot of fun.

by Robert Repino
Soho Press 2014

Click on the link (attached to the title above) to read the first chapter at Powell's Books.
No, Powell's did not pay me to say that, or provide me with the book. They're just awesome.

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