Thursday, May 29, 2014

REVIEW: French Milk by Lucy Knisley


French Milk
by Lucy Knisley

Lucy Knisley (author of Relish) takes a trip with her mother to Paris as a present for her 22nd birthday. Knisley keeps a graphic journal of their days there, filled with museums, food and shopping.

I really wanted to like this book more than I did. I thought that since it was a single story, rather than Relish which was a reflection on her entire childhood, that it would have more of an arc. However, as it reflected real life, it was simply a record of days. The trip was enviable (and seemingly well-funded), and as a result, I wanted to go back to Paris and visit some of the places she went, but I didn't really enjoy her listing the places she went and the things she ate and the items she bought. She did occasionally have depressive episodes, but they were merely commented on and not explored. Knisley wrote just enough about them to make me start to worry existentially about my own future, as she was doing.

It really made me want to go and have those experiences in Paris for myself, but I didn't really care about reading that she had them. I did enjoy her drawings, however, as they expanded upon the action of the text beautifully. Its just sad that I am not interested in her stories. Perhaps soon she will delve into the realm of fiction and her stories and excellent illustrations will be enhanced with character arcs and conflict.

If you are looking for a fast, light, tour of places to go and things to do in Paris, this is a good book for you.

REVIEW: Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant by Tony Cliff


Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant
by Tony Cliff

Erdemoglu Selim is resigned to his lot as a low level officer in the Turkish Jannisary corps. Delilah Dirk is a globetrotting troublemaker, adventurer, and treasure seeker who ends up in the Turkish prison. Selim is in charge of interrogating her, and when she escapes, he is accused of being complicit, so he reluctantly accompanies her on her swashbuckling adventures. When he is given the chance, will he embrace the wonderous life she has shown him, or settle down and finally drink that perfect cup of tea.

Holy swashbuckling adventure, Batman! This book was just as rollicking as it promised on the cover. A daring, sassy female fighter with her steady companion face challenge after challenge, from burning airship to angry mob. Their banter and the deepening of their relationship are what cemented my love of this graphic novel.

It was a fast read too! I got it got to read on the metro to and from an event, and I finished it before I even got there. Fast fun kickass heroine adventure candy.

REVIEW: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell


by Rainbow Rowell

“I'm the Cool One," she told herself. "Somebody give me some tequila because I'll totally drink it. And there's no way you're going to find me later having a panic attack in your parents' bathroom. Who wants to French-kiss?” 

Cath is a Simon Snow fan. A big one. In fact, she writes one of the most popular Simon Snow fanfictions in the world.  Cath is entering college, and for the first time is not rooming with her twin, who she needed to define herself as an individual. With all these new changes in her life, her anxiety is spiking, and it is easy to hide in Simon Snow (a thinly veiled Harry Potter). Yet, little by little, new relationships tempt her to stick her foot out the door into the uncertain world. When her fears about the world are proven to be correct, will she retreat into the world of Simon Snow forever, or gather the courage to face unpredictable real life head on.

I loved this book. I believe Eleanor and Park was probably better, but Fangirl was very personal. It is an excellent exploration of anxiety, the paralyzing fear of the unknown, the fear of waves of "crazy." It was heartening to see Cath open up to new experiences and new friends, even as she held fast to her fandom, first as her shield, and then as a comfort. Her relationship with her kind and driven father who struggles with manic depression, and her relationship with her twin, a fellow Simon Snow fan who begins to have a rather destructive college experience were highly compelling. Her love interests were tender, sensual and silly, but felt a bit one dimensional to me. Perhaps a bit too perfect. But comfy and lovely and highly enjoyable. Rowell has an amazing talent for letting her characters live without forced conflict, and it is still interesting. You watch them be happy, and you are happy for them. That is not to say there is no conflict. Cath must go through a lot to get her happiness.

I highly recommend it to anyone who has been far away from home in a new place, trying to redefine yourself, to passionate fans of anything, and to anxiety sufferers.

Monday, May 19, 2014

REVIEW: Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures

Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures
by Kate DiCamillo

“Pascal," said Dr. Meescham, "had it that since it could not be proven whether God existed, one might as well believe that he did, because there was everything to gain by believing and nothing to lose. This is how it is for me. What do I lose if I choose to believe? Nothing!"

"Take this squirrel, for instance. Ulysses. Do I believe he can type poetry? Sure, I do believe it. There is much more beauty in the world if I believe such a thing is possible.” 

Flora is a cynic. She spends her days up in her room reading comics like The Amazing Incandesto, The Criminal Element, and Terrible Things Can Happen To You! just to make sure she is prepared for the worst. Her motto is "Do not hope. Observe." This way, she can protect herself. Her mother spends her time writing romance novels on their typewriter and she seems to love the shepherdess lamp in the hall more than Flora. Her parents separated, and her quiet father lives in an apartment complex near by. Flora has learned that life is full of disappointments. That is, until one day, when a squirrel gets sucked up in her neighbors vacuum. The incident gives the squirrel amazing powers of strength, comprehension, and the ability to fly and write poetry. As their friendship blooms, Flora begins to think with her heart, rather than her head, but will it just give her more pain in the long run?

This is a delightfully silly and odd book with a true heart. Flora's transformation from cynic to believer is a joy to watch. Ulysses' (the squirrel's) inner monologue made me smile each time we entered his head. He was so full of wonder at the world as he was now comprehending it that it moved him to write poetry and express his love for Flora. Her father's reawakening to wonder and self-expression due to Flora and the squirrel was probably my favorite part. There is an incredible cast of characters, from Tootie the poetry loving next door neighbor, to her nephew William Spiver who believes he is temporarily blind due to recent trauma, to Dr. Meescham, a doctor of philosophy who teachers Flora about lonesomeness and being open to possibilities.

The word play and repetition is delicious. The father always introduces himself, no matter what the situation. Flora pulls words from her books, like "Holy Bagumba" and "This malfeasance must be stopped," elevating Ulysses to the role of superhero. I think my favorite might be the recurring reference to a painting in Dr. Meescham's office of a squid with its tentacles around a small boat in a dark sea. Flora sees the squid as a villain, but Dr. Meescham explains that the squid is lonely because it might not see another of its kind for its lifetime. The image of the squid recurs in reference to Flora's lonely heart throughout the book: “Flora’s heart, the lonely, many-armed squid of it, flipped and flailed inside her.”

It is a joyful book with a great heart. I highly recommend it for those who feel they have lost their ability to believe.

Friday, May 16, 2014

REVIEW: The Firefly Letters by Margarita Engle

The Firefly Letters
by Margarita Engle

We go out at night 
to rescue fireflies.

Children catch the friendly cocuyos
and pull off their wings
or put them in bottles
to make little lamps
where the insects glow and fly
until they starve.

Women tie living cocuyos
onto their ruffled dresses as ornements
and girls weave them into their hair 
like flashing jewels.

Fredrika and I
feel like heroines in a story, 
following people around
buying captive fireflies
and setting them free.

A novel in verse, Engle tells the true story of Fredrika Bremer, a Swedish suffragette, who travels to Cuba to document life there at the turn of the century. She is given an African slave named Cecelia to translate for her. Fredrika's host family has a young girl named Elena who has never been outside her house and is strictly told what is and is not expected of a noble lady. The novel is structured into short poems from the perspective of Fredrika, Cecelia, Elena, and Cecilia's husband Beni, as they reveal the pleasures and darker underbelly of Cuba.

This was a delightful book. I had expected a bit more action, but the lyrical poetry was enchanting and I was taken on a lovely ride. It was fascinating to learn about Cuba at that time and see how the three women help each other to grow. It is an interesting exploration of slavery and captivity in all its forms.

REVIEW: Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen
by Lucy Knisley

“I love the treat and pleasure of eating when it becomes an act of focused giving and sharing...Wasting money and appetite on bad food is disappointing, but it doesn't matter when the company is good...[T]here's a lot to be said for eating as a social act. It's a treat, even when the food is bad.” 

Lucy has grown up in kitchens her whole life. Her mother was a fantastic cook, caterer, and farmer, and from her Lucy was introduced to the best foods available. This graphic novel memoir explores her journey from childhood to adulthood through food and several important recipes.

This graphic novel was ok. I loved the recipes! I want all of my cookbooks to have illustrations like this to accompany them:

However, the story itself was a bit lacking. It was nice to see how she grew up, and there were several funny stories, but there was no conflict. Everything was beautiful and tasty and idyllic and even when she grew surly in her teenage years, you knew she would come to see how amazing everything was. It did make me want to appreciate the preparation and consumption of my food, however.

I would definitely buy this book for the recipes. They are simple and clear and funny, with useful tips and illustrations.

REVIEW: Hold Fast by Blue Balliet

Hold Fast
by Blue Balliet

"Hold fast to dreams for if dreams go, life is a barren field covered with snow. hold fast to dreams for if dreams die, life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly." 
- Langston Hughes

They have always been four, Dashsumearlyjubie, a family that held tight to each other, loved each other, learned from each other and was happy. That is until Dash, the father, was hit by a truck and disappeared one snowy day. Summer, the mother, Early, the daughter, and Jubie, the young son, are distraught, knowing that their father who worked as a page at the Chicago Public Library was not the kind of father to walk away from them. Then one night, masked men break into their apartment with guns, steal all their books, and destroy their home. Forced to live in a shelter, Early takes it upon her self to solve the mystery of her father's disappearance and find them a new place to live. Guided by her father's favorite book, The First Book of Rhythms by Langston Hughes, she follows the sinister trail of betrayal and lies to find what is really going on while struggling to keep her family from falling apart.

This was a beautiful, poetic book that is absolutely in love with language. I was itching to read it out loud. The Pearl family loves words. They keep a book of new words that they discover and love. At the beginning of each book section is a word that has multiple definitions which encapsulate the next movement of the piece.

Towards the middle, I began to lose interest because not much was going on, but Balliet kept pulling me back in with the beautiful words, the strong bonds of love, the exploration of Langston's work that was the only thing that kept Early going, and the strong feeling of magic realism just in the corner of your eye. It is also a good introduction into the life of a homeless family, and I would probably read it to a class for both poetry and social justice.

A really beautiful book. I am going to pick up The First Book of Rhythms now.

REVIEW: Going Bovine by Libba Bray

Going Bovine 
by Libba Bray

“These are hard times. The world hurts. We live in fear and forget to walk with hope. But hope has not forgotten you. So ask it to dinner. It's probably hungry and would appreciate the invitation.” 

All 16-year-old Cameron wants to do is detach and snark and perhaps get with his sister's hot friend. When he comes down with Mad Cow disease, however, everything is off the table. There is no cure. That is, until Cameron sees a beautiful punk rock angel in his hospital room who tells him he must go on a quest to find Doctor X, rescue him from the forces of darkness threatening to destroy the universe, and get his cure. With nothing to loose, he sets off on a roadtrip across America with a hypochondriac dwarf and a lawn gnome who claims he is the god Baldur from Norse mythology.

The thing that hooked me before I even picked up the book was that this was a retelling of Don Quixote. I regret to say, I have never read the original, but there were definite iconic moments I grasped, like tilting with windmill giants, the sidekick, the black knight, and the family who keep trying to bring him back to their reality.

The beginning is brilliant. Cameron describes the best day in his life, the day he went to Disney World, until he rode on the It's a Small World ride, had a weird feeling that they had all died and this was the afterlife, and nearly drowned trying to find what was behind one of the access doors in the ride, sure it was something mystical. Fast forward to 16 years later when Cameron is pretty unlikable. He doesn't try, because why should he? But that all changes when he accepts the quest. He discovers there are things worth fighting for.

This book has some pretty incredible moments. Bray captures images with such weighted specificity. Every piece of the landscape informs the emotional state of Cameron. She is brilliant at creating these moments where reality completely bends and a veil is torn to see what metaphysical things are going on beneath every day life. And yet you are never quite sure if Cameron is really there. Is he traveling across the US, or still hallucinating in his hospital bed? Did he see those fire giants with swinging arms, or was it the disease? She creates these scenes that instill mind-bending terror and awe at the inexplicably and dispassion of such occurrences. In the end, it doesn't matter if it all happened in his head or not. His emotional journey from apathy to deep and painful caring is the same. Bray doesn't pull punches and lets the story play out to it's often heartbreaking conclusions. It is a beautiful and HI-larious story about connecting, and living life and having adventures while you can.

She also gives some great commentary on media and modern public schools which made me laugh.

I highly recommend this book.

Books like this
Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz

REVIEW: Boxers and Saints

Boxers and Saints
by Gene Luen Yang

“What is China but a people and their stories?” 

Boxers and Saints are two companion graphic novels that tell the two sides of the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1898. Boxers follows Little Bao, a boy whose village is bullied and oppressed by Christian foreigners. Vowing to put a stop to it, he and his followers become imbued with the power of the ancient gods and fight the "foreign devils" and "secondary devils" -- the Chinese who converted to Christianity. Spurred on by the spirit of the Emperor who united China, his actions become more and more ruthless until he can no longer tell if his crusade is just. Saints tells the story of Four-Girl who is neglected and abused by her family and finds a home in the local Catholic Church. Baptized as Vibiana, she struggles with her purpose in life. Seeing visions of Joan of Arc, she wants to be a female warrior and lead her people to freedom, but the Boxer Rebellion is coming nearer and nearer, bringing death and destruction in its wake. When the time comes, what will her role be?

It has been a few months since I read these books, so please bear with me. These stories are beautifully told, but brutal and dark. Yang pulls no punches here. He does not flinch from letting his protagonists make very wrong choices. The images are beautiful and striking as each character is lead by visions of their own spiritual guide. I love watching how their two stories intersect and impact each other through life, both at odds, both with good intentions. 

The ending to Boxers leaves you with a kick to the stomach, as does Saints, but there is a kernel of hope at the very very end that makes you feel that people are not entirely terrible. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

REVIEW: The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde

The Last Dragonslayer
by Jasper Fforde

“Quarkbeasts, for all their fearsome looks, are obedient to a fault. They are nine-tenths velociraptor and kitchen blender and one-tenth Labrador. It was the Labrador tenth that I valued most.” 

Please forgive me if this review makes no sense. I have Thursday mush brain.

One of my favorite authors, Jasper Fforde, who brought us the Thursday Next series, tells us the tale of Jennifer Strange, a foundling who works for Kazam Mystical Arts Management, a company that contracts out wizards to do home repairs. Magic was once a powerful force in the world, and it is waning. Those who once could turn lead into gold now can barely manage to unclog a drain without help. When a prophecy declares that the last dragon will die on Sunday at noon, the magical community wonders if that means magic will be gone for good. Greedy land grabbers to wait with baited breath along the dragon land border with flags and twine, companies vie for merchandising contracts, and the two countries on either side of the territory are preparing for war. It is up to Jennifer and her pet, the terrifying Quarkbeast, to get to the bottom of this situation while trying to keep Kazam from falling apart.

This was an absolutely charming book. It felt like Harry Potter with all the serious parts taken out and all the goofy random fun stuff kept in.  For a while I thought it was just fluff, especially with Jennifer blithely and confidently sailing through the administrative troubles of Kazam, but the second she doesn't have a witty comeback, you know shit has hit the fan. Those are the juiciest moments, when she is vulnerable and out of her element and must regroup to succeed. I also cheered that Jennifer was a non-magical ADMINISTRATOR! She made sure people filled out the correct form for x or y spell and took care of the more artistically-minded magic workers.

The world is a charming mix of the medieval (wizards, dragons, castles, kings) and the modern (Jennifer's orange VW Bug, plumbing, paperwork, merchandising). Fforde is king of the mash up, and spices it with wonderful jokes like this: “It was written in the ancient RUNIX spell-language, and is read-only and can't be modified.” And a moose illusion that will not go away. And a Dragonslayer headquarters which is a bit like Ghostbusters.

I highly recommend this book if you love whimsy and kick ass female characters.

Other Jasper Fforde Books I Have Reviewed
Thursday Next: First Among Sequels 
The Fourth Bear
Shades of Grey

Friday, March 21, 2014

REVIEW: Cress by Marissa Meyer

by Marissa Meyer

“I am an explorer,' she whispered, 'setting courageously off into the wild unknown.' It was not a daydream she'd ever had before, but she felt the familiar comfort of her imagination wrapping around her. She was an archeologist, a scientist, a treasure hunter. She was a master of land and sea. 'My life is an adventure.' she said, growing confident as she opened her eyes again. 'I will not be shackled to this satellite anymore.'

Thorne tilted his head to one side. He waited for three heartbeats before sliding one hand down into hers. 'I have no idea what you're talking about,' he said. 'But we'll go with it.” 

Beginning where Scarlet left off, Cinder, Thorne, Scarlet and Wolf are on their ship (voiced by Iko, their droid compatriot) trying to think of a plan to overthrow the Lunar Queen, stop her from marrying Prince Kai and taking over the world. It is not a B movie, I swear. On a satellite circling earth, we find Cress, a long-haired Lunar shell (non-magical Lunar), who has spent her life working for the Queen, hacking their security feeds, monitoring their transmissions, and hiding Lunar movements. In all that time of solitude, she has fallen in love with earth, and more specifically with the dashing and suave Captain Thorne whom she knows is hiding a heart of gold under his selfish exterior. She teams up with our heroes, but when Thorne attempts to rescue her from her lonely outpost, Cress' guardian, the Lunar Thaumaturge finds them, and sends the satellite hurling to earth. In the process, Thorne is blinded (the witch throws the prince from the tower, he lands in thorns and his eyes are gouged out). Cress, newly shorn, and a blind Thorne must find their way across the desert, join Cinder and stop the royal wedding. 

Oh my god, these books are like fairy tale catnip for me. They are perfectly crafted adaptations. They touch on every single iconic moment of the original tales, but it is woven seamlessly into a new compelling science fiction political drama/ adventure novel. In every book, the heroines become more and more pleasing. Cinder was a determined kick-ass heroine along the model that we have seen before. Scarlet was a kick-ass heroine with beautiful weaknesses and flaws. Cress is a quirky shut-in damsel-in-distress, but in a way that does not diminish her complexity or humanness. She does not have awesome fighting powers, but is an intelligent and valuable contributer to the team. Meyer writes strong female characters who do not have to be physically strong, and I adore that. 

The women are not the only ones who develop in this book. Captain Thorne, swashbuckling wannabe extraordinaire who was introduced in Scarlet, must show his quality when he and Cress face the relentless desert, and underneath his swagger he has grit, determination, and genuine tenderness.He is not just prancing comic relief, but a man who deserves the love Cress feels for him. 

Dr. Erland also finds himself on a journey of self triggered by the revelation of his fatherhood, as he attempts to reconcile highly immoral medical practices and his conscience. In my head, I cast Saul Rubinek as Dr. Erland and I think it is perfect. Make the movie now, please. 

We also meet an assholic Lunar guard who might turn into the prince of the next book, Winter. I am super excited!

One last thing I appreciate (of the many things I appreciate in these books) is how Meyer writes romance. There (so far) has been no sex in these books, but the tantalizingly sensual way the characters fall in love is so erotic that there doesn't need to be. How one character touches another softly, or even imagines being touched, is so tinglingly delicious. And yes, romance is a thing, but the focus is saving the kingdom, which shows that their priorities are in order. 

READ THESE BOOKS. That is all. 

The Lunar Chronicles

REVIEW: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
by Sherman Alexie

“I used to think the world was broken down by tribes,' I said. 'By Black and White. By Indian and White. But I know this isn't true. The world is only broken into two tribes: the people who are assholes and the people who are not.” 

Junior lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation, stuck in a life that has no forward momentum. You are born here, you live here, and you die here, poor as dirt and often mired in a despair that his family and community try to escape in dangerous and addictive ways. After becoming enraged that the textbook he was handed in class was the same one his mother used as a child, he is entreated by his teacher (the target of Junior's book-flinging anger who is saturated with regret) to get out. Junior takes his destiny into his own hands and enrolls in elite school miles away from the reservation, often hitchhiking back and forth. Despite his disadvantages, he begins to thrive, but at what cost? His reservation sees him as a traitor. How can he reconcile his heritage with his dreams?

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is witty, hopeful and heartbreaking. Junior's voice is so authentic, a teenage boy with an awareness of his community through the lens of his own wants and desires. Often times he is selfish and shallow, but that's being human for you. He begins as one thing, a weakling with an oddly shaped body due to a birth defect to a significant presence at his new school. He is allowed to blossom, rather then stunting and rotting in a place with no space to grow. The tragedy is that those he has left behind remain in this cycle of despair that has lasted generations. Is it betraying his heritage to abandon his community? Is it self preservation? Junior wrestles with these questions as the story continues, through tragedy, pain and bittersweet victory. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Monument 14 by Emmy Laybourne

Monument 14
by Emmy Laybourne

“Your mother hollers that you're going to miss the bus. She can see it coming down the street. You don't stop and hug her and tell her you love her. You don't thank her for being a good, kind, patient mother. Of course not- you launch yourself down the stairs and make a run for the corner.
Only, if it's the last you'll ever see your mother, you sort of start to wish you'd stopped and did those things. Maybe even missed the bus.
But the bus was barreling down our street so I ran.” 

Dean is on his way to school, sometime in the near future, when the apocalypse hits. A massive volcano sets of a chain of events (hail storms, earthquakes, tidal waves) that lead to the bus crashing right outside a Greenway (basically a Walmart). Kids die and the survivors take shelter in the store. The earthquakes lead to chemical weapons escaping from NORAD, and soon no one can go outside without risk of contamination and violent reactions. Dean and the kids (ranging from kindergarten to high school) must work together to survive in the midst of of the most devastating disaster in the nation's history.

As you know, I love survival books. This is probably one of my favorites. It has a milder Lord of the Flies feel, with hormones raging, but not to the extent of the classic. Alliances are forged and broken, love is found and lost. Yet, we never really get too close to any of the characters. They are all still mysteries in Dean's eyes. You get the feeling that you can never really know a person, even if you are locked in a Walmart with them during the apocalypse. The kids are smart, blocking ventilation, creating zones, using resources wisely, creating a home and a routine for the younger kids, finding ways to communicate with the outside world. You wonder how long this community can last and if their destruction will be internal or external. The ending is surprisingly the end of a section, but hardly the end of their story. I am not at all surprised to find out that there are several more books in this world after the end of the story, and I can't wait to read them!

REVIEW: Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

Out of the Easy 
by Ruta Sepetys

“We all laced together—a brothel madam, an English professor, a mute cook, a quadroon cabbie, and me, the girl carrying a bucket of lies and throwing them like confetti.”

Josie Moraine is the daughter of a prostitute in 1950s New Orleans, but she will not let that define her. Her mother is shallow, cruel and thoughtless, so Josie finds family elsewhere: the savvy, ball-busting madam of the most famous whorehouse in the city, a mixed race cab driver named Cokie, the owner of a bookstore where she works and his son. When her mother's old flame returns to town and a man is murdered, Josie struggles against her background to get out of New Orleans and find a promising future. But will the past drag her down?

Quick and dirty review: I loved this book. The characters were so complex and well-drawn. The world of 1950s New Orleans was so rich! And the plot always kept me guessing. I was a little dissatisfied with the ending, but it did not spoil my enjoyment of Josie, her friends or her fight to forge a new life for herself. The language is beautiful without feeling unnatural. Josie has a smart, direct, yet soulful voice. I highly recommend this book!