Posted in Book Reviews

Book Review: Arabella of Mars

By David D. Levine
2016. Hardcover. 352pp. Tor Books.
Winner of the 2016 Andre Norton Award for Outstanding Young Adult Science Fiction or Fantasy Book.

Arabella doesn’t want to be a lady, but her mother is determined to make her one. So when playful “hunting” with her brother results in an injury, Arabella’s mother decides to take her back “home”, to Earth. The only problem is, Arabella is from Mars. Well, she was raised there, and has no interest in returning to England and leaving her beloved Mars behind.
After receiving devastating news and tiring of the confines of British society, Arabella’s mother relents slightly and sends her to live with a cousin. Unfortunately, that doesn’t go to plan either and Arabella finds herself running away, looking for a ship that will take her to Mars so she can save her brother’s life. She has some trouble, even disguised as she is, but she eventually gets passage on the Diana with an unexpected task: to learn to work the navigating automaton. As she learns more about being a ship’s boy, the automaton, and the crew, Arabella must balance carefully her task and her loyalty on the ship.
Arabella of Mars is the 2017 winner of the Andre Norton Award for Outstanding Young Adult Science Fiction or Fantasy Book, joining JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows (2008) and Terry Pratchett’s I Shall Wear Midnight (2011) as a winner.

I first picked up Arabella of Mars because it was listed in an article highlighting science fiction and fantasy novels. I enjoyed the story, although some elements of it were as expected for the genre. Arabella was the right mix of spunky and determined, while also acting like an actual teenager instead of like an adult in a teenager’s body. I especially enjoyed the scenes with the automaton, partially because I like the idea of automata and wish they were still popular. Some of the science wouldn’t work, but I guess that’s what makes it science fiction. The scenes with Arabella and the captain got pretty heart wrenching, but I particularly enjoyed Arabella and her brother’s relationship. Instead of falling into the usual trope of siblings who hate each other, Arabella and her brother support each other. When he’s accused of a crime, Arabella instantly knows it wasn’t him who did it.
I wish some of the science had been more realistic, sometimes science fiction takes the easy way out by making the science too fictional. A good example of that is Star Trek. Although this can be used to explore other conflicts and not have to worry about the science, worrying about the science can lead to interesting conflicts. I did really like the scenes on the ship, it reminded me of the ship from Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, but with more crew-captain conflict.
This was, overall, a good summer read. It was a quick and easy read with enough action and serious moments to make a compelling story. The plot was entertaining and, while it didn’t throw many loops, it had a lot enjoyable moments and characters.

I would recommend this book to people who enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and who like steam punk and space fantasy.

Posted in Book Reviews

Book Review: The Invisible Library

By Genevieve Cogman
2014. Paperback. 329pp. Tor UK.

Irene works for the Library collecting dangerous or parallel-world unique books. After a successful mission, she’s given a new, urgent mission and an assistant she doesn’t really want. Once in the alternate world, Irene and Kai find that Chaos has grabbed hold of this world and it’s up to them to fend it off while trying to find the book they’ve been sent to find. With some unexpected guests, including an ominous note about the worst, most evil Librarian of all, and some unexpected twists, will Irene and Kai be able to grab the book and get it back to the Library? Full of mystery and wit, the Invisible Library brings us on a literary and magical ride of adventure and intrigue.

This book was a bit hard to summarize without spoiling a lot of the major plot points and without blending it too much with similar novels and shows. It’s very reminiscent of the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde, the Librarians movies and television show, and even a bit like Doctor Who. It was still pretty enjoyable, for all its similarities with other works. The characters are full of snappy, entertaining dialogue and even a few surprises. Even though it wasn’t as much of a page-turner as I wanted it to be, it was a light read, perfect for a summer fantasy fix. The final scenes that took place in the library (as opposed to in the Library) were well-written and enjoyable.
The main characters did frequently feel like the standard quippy protagonists, always ready with a witty response and witty inner dialogue. It would have been nice to have a few more surprises from the characters themselves, but they were believable in their actions. Not once did it feel like a character was out-of-character within the story.

I would recommend this book to someone who likes the things it reminds me of. If you’re looking for a literarily-inspired fantasy work that involves alternate universes and magical libraries, this is a good place to go.

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Book Review: Skinny Legs and All

By Tom Robbins
1990. Hardcover. 422pp. Bantam Books.

Ellen Cherry Charles was not expecting to travel to New York City in an Airstream shaped like a turkey. Nor was she expecting to make the journey as Mrs. Randolph “Boomer” Petway III, but here she is. Along the way, she and Boomer lose an old sock, a can of beans, and a small silver spoon in a cave where they stopped to picnic (and enjoy the activities newlywed couples traveling across the US enjoy). In the heat of their passion, Ellen Cherry insists Boomer call her “Jezebel,” a fascination started by her father and Uncle Buddy’s insistence that she withdraw from art school while chanting Jezebel at her as they removed her make-up and extolled the sins of Jezebel. Little did Boomer and Ellen Cherry know, but invoking Jezebel in that cave woke Painted Stick and Conch Shell, two holy objects seeking their rightful places in temples of Jerusalem. As Ellen Cherry and Boomer travel to New York City, the inanimate objects (which turn out to be animate) begin their journey to Jerusalem.
Once in NYC, Ellen Cherry finds herself to be increasingly dissatisfied with her lot as an artist as Boomer begins to gain recognition for his Airstream Turkey. The couple eventually is estranged and Ellen Cherry begins to work at a restaurant opened by an Arab and a Jew across the street from the UN. After a rocky start, the restaurant begins to get more popular with the hiring of the beautiful dancer Salome. Ellen Cherry learns about Jerusalem from her two bosses (and much more in between) as she works out where she fits in life as an artist and as a woman.
Of course, the basic plot of the book is not the entirety of the story. The connection between these disparate stories is the Dance of the Seven Veils, a dance that requires the dancer to let go of the veils that blind humanity from its essential truths. The novel is divided into seven sections, one for each veil, and as the story line progresses, the seven truths are revealed to the reader.

When I finished reading American Gods, I messaged my friend, Laura, for a recommendation that had a similarly American-mythology bend. Tom Robbins had that sort of magicky-myth vibe, but didn’t feel like the same theme, or even same genre. Since this was the first Tom Robbins book I’d read, I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but Laura has never given me a bad recommendation. This book didn’t rock my world like Snow Crash or The Diamond Age, but it was still very good.
I especially like Ellen Cherry Charles, particularly because of her frustration at her circumstances and her choices as a result of this frustration. She goes through an existential crisis very similar to the one I went through after graduating college. Where she questions her validity as an artist after moving to New York City and not producing as much art or gaining as much success as she thought she would in that hub of art and movement, I questioned what I really wanted to do with that four year degree I was sure was the right path for me. (Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret getting that degree, it was just very difficult to find my path just after graduation.)
At first, I wasn’t as in to the book as I wanted to be, but as the veils kept dropping, my interest grew. I was going through a bit of a reading slump before starting this book and while reading the first half of it, but once Boomer went on his journey and Ellen Cherry (which is a fantastic name) starts working at the restaurant, I was hooked. It wasn’t a thrilling adventure or page-turning suspense novel, and the esoteric ideas get a little heavy sometimes, but overall, I really enjoyed this book.

I’m not very sure to whom I would recommend this book, especially considering I’m not very sure how to describe it if I was to recommend it to anyone. If someone was to ask me for recommendations that sounded like this would be a good fit, I would recommend it, but I wouldn’t go around trying to convince my friends to read it.

Posted in Book Reviews

Book Review: American Gods

By Neil Gaiman
2001. Mass-market paperback. 592pp. HarperCollins.

Shadow Moon spent three years behind bars, dreaming of the day he would be released and able to go home to his wife, Laura. Days before his release, Shadow gets news that’s even worse than his original sentencing: Laura and his best friend were killed in a car accident. On the flight home, Shadow meets a charismatic man, Mr. Wednesday, who offers him a job. At first, Shadow is suspicious when Wednesday knows a lot more about him than he should, but figures he’s got nothing to lose and decides to take the offer.
The new job takes Shadow down some weird twists and turns, including visits from his wife and Gods old and new. As he navigates this weird world he didn’t know existed, Shadow must figure out what it is he wants from life now that his old dream has died. It turns out America has more to it than meets the eye, including an impending battle where both sides are trying to win him over.
With new adaptations of American Gods coming out, including a comic series by Dark Horse and the television show by Starz, I wanted to finally read this book my friends had been talking about for a while. I was also waiting for Wynonna Earp, also rooted in American mythology but in the Old West rather than Gods, to come out with a second season and American Gods seemed like a good interlude.

At first, I was hesitant to start this book because and I read Stardust, also by Neil Gaiman, when I was in high school and ended up liking the movie a lot better than I did the book. However, what I had seen online of the series was looking very good and well-made so this time I wanted to give the book a chance first. As of this writing, I still haven’t started the new television series.
I really enjoyed the characters and the settings, particularly while Shadow was adventuring across the United States. My family has spent many summers on road trips, so the locations felt familiar, even if they weren’t really based on anywhere I had actually been. There were also twists that I should have seen coming, but I was so caught up in the turns of the story I completely missed them. Shadow is a very good main character, well-thought out and easy to identify with. He’s just along for the ride, a lot like the reader, but then gets his own agency as the story continues.
I had trouble during the book connecting with Laura’s character, but part of that may be that Shadow himself has trouble connecting to her in their new life and the reader can feel that, even if it’s never explicitly mentioned. I wanted a more detailed ending of Shadow’s life after the events of the novel play out, but semi-vague endings leave plenty of room for reader interpretation of the events that follow the novel.
The main thing I enjoyed while reading, however, was the interweaving and acknowledgement of the United States’ history as a place for immigrants. Each old God introduced made perfect sense to me, since we brought people over here on boats with their beliefs, it made sense that their Gods would surely follow. It was a similar theological exploration of Gods adapting to new worlds as was in the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan.

If you’re a fan of Americana mythology and things that require you to be at least a little superstitious to believe, I highly recommend this book. It falls into one of my categories with Wynonna Earp (the show, not the comic) as an exploration of American mythology and people who have to interact with it.

Posted in Book Reviews

Book Review: The Glass Universe

How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars
By Dava Sobel
2016. Hardcover. 320pp. Viking.

In a time when women were expected to do the work astronomers couldn’t be bothered to do, the women of Harvard Observatory took control of their own stargazing and worked their way into standing as women of science. After the death of her astronomer husband, Mrs. Anna Draper wanted to continue his legacy of stellar photography. She donated money to the Harvard Observatory, under the direction of Edward Charles Pickering, to continue research into the stars using stellar photography. The women working under Pickering started as the wives, sisters, and daughters of the astronomers, but slowly began to shift to women studying or recently graduated from the women’s colleges.
Over the span of the work, the Observatory amassed approximately half a million plates that captured the night sky for years. Using these plates, Williamina Fleming, Annie Jump Cannon, Dr. Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposhkin, and the other women of the Observatory were able to revolutionize their roles as members of the Observatory.
Written by Dava Sobel, author of Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, the book spans from Mrs. Draper’s project’s beginning to Dr. Payne-Gaposhkin becoming the first female professor of Harvard. With Pickering’s ability to find funding, the women were able to work to shine in their field as much as the stars they studied, leaving behind legacies written about even now.

Looking at the space advancements and studies we have today, from the Apollo missions to the more recent Cassini, it’s hard to think back to this time period. Sobel’s goal, to bring to light the women who would otherwise remain in the dark observatory of the 1880s, is well-realized, although a lot of the focus seems to be on Pickering and less on the women themselves. The stories don’t get too caught up in being flowery, nor do they stray too far into the scientific, but I do wish there was more about the women and their lives in the book. Pickering was instrumental in their successes, however I frequently felt as though I knew more about Pickering than the women themselves.
Sobel’s focus on Annie Jump Cannon, however, was well-realized, even though I didn’t realize the extent of her contribution to modern science. As she continued to gain renown through the novel’s detailed events, I was amazed at how much she accomplished in her lifetime. The fact that we have had so many advancements in technology since she identified her classification system, from our increased ability to identify stars and record their data, and yet we continue to use the classification system she outlined in the late 1800s is astounding to me. It shows that our technological advancements didn’t make the older discoveries obsolete, as we often believe to be the case. It was especially inspiring to see the legacy these women left for others who wanted to be a part of astronomy, but would have been disregarded because of their gender.

If you like to learn about astronomy and its history, I highly recommend this book. It’s a bit dry and a slow read, but definitely worth it. I enjoy listening to Planetary Radio’s podcast and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk, so this was very much in line with those interests. Of course, if you enjoyed this book and want further material, I highly recommend both of those podcasts.

Posted in Book Reviews

Book Review: The Summer of You

The Blue Raven, #2
By Kate Noble
2010. Paperback. 352pp. Berkley Trade.

After the adventures in London, Byrne Worth has retreated to his cottage on Merrymere Lake, where he is unbothered in his solitude. He likes it this way, he tells himself, he has his daily swim and no one around to bother him. At least, until Lady Jane Cummings and her family return to Merrymere.
Lady Jane is not having the summer she wanted. She was looking forward to spending time socializing in London, it serves as a nice break from dealing with her ailing father and the responsibilities of running the household while her brother is away. Unfortunately, her brother has returned and decided he’s back in charge.
Kate Noble’s second book in the Blue Raven Series, The Summer of You follows Lady Jane Cummings to Merrymere Lake after her brother returns from his travels and decides it’s better for their father to be at Merrymere. He thinks she’ll go quietly like a good young woman, but she isn’t going without a fight. As her father’s condition gets worse and her brother continues avoiding the responsibilities, Lady Jane finds a surprising confidant in Byrne Worth. The town has decided he’s the highwayman robbing them in their travels, but Lady Jane is not so convinced. She comes up with a plan to help clear his name and he begrudgingly goes along with it. Along the way, they both realize maybe trying to do things on their own isn’t always the best way and maybe it’s easier with a supporter.

Although most romance novels can feel old hat, Kate Noble’s work always feels so refreshing, even after reading a few in a row! I was feeling a bit down the night I read this book and it definitely helped. They mystery was well-written and just as central to the novel as the romance and the sub-plots. Of course, there was the “next in the series” couple set-up, but I even found that couple to be charming rather than trite! One thing that always particularly impresses me about Noble’s writing is the characterizations. The women aren’t what would normally “go” in the time period, but they’re well-written and well-fleshed out, so it’s easy enough to believe these characters would know each other and get along as they do in the books. It’s also easy to see that she does her research for the time period and the locations. I’ve traveled a bit in England and Ireland and the settings are fully realized and historically plausible. It’s always nice to read something where the author clearly cares as much about the accuracy of the setting as they do the accuracy of their characters.

Grumpy man meets charming woman and is changed is a standard trope in romance novels, as well as teaming up to solve a mystery. Although there were a few obvious “twists” to the story, they weren’t trying. It’s easy to get caught in keeping the story in the boundaries of the genre and Noble doesn’t stray too far from the “usual” romance storyline, but the characters and the story were enjoyable nonetheless. There were even a few non-standard surprises thrown in for variety. I really disliked Lady Jane’s brother and was very pleased when he finally got over himself towards the end of the book.

If you’ve gotten tired of the popular romance authors, give Kate Noble’s books a try! She’s written a few romance novels under the name Kate Noble, as well as The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet and The Epic Adventures of Lydia Bennet as Kate Rorick. Her romance novels (as well as the Pride and Prejudice video series she started out working on) are refreshing takes on a genre that can be full of over-done tropes and storylines.

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Book Review: The Dare and the Doctor


Series #: Winner Takes All, #3
Genre: Fiction, Trashy Romance, Historical
Original Publication Date: 2016


Read: 28 Feb 2017

Summary: The conclusion to the Winner Takes All series, The Dare and the Doctor doesn’t disappoint. Dr. Rhys Gray and Ms. Margaret Babcock are friends and scientific correspondences. When Margaret gets the chance to present the flowers she’s been working on to the top scientific minds in London, Rhys does everything he can to help her brave the stodgy old men. Sparks begin to fly between the two, but when a chance meeting throws everything out of balance, how will Rhys solve a problem created by his absent father? How will Margaret handle these new feelings?

Review: A very satisfactory ending to the trilogy. I genuinely wasn’t expecting some of the twists that happened in the story, so it was refreshing, as Kate Noble often is. Somehow, her books always feel like the perfect summer beachside romance novels. Just the right balance of romance and …ahem… other, with well-written characters and believable, but still slightly over-the-top and adventurous stories. This one in particular, with Margaret trying to get recognition as a woman in science, impressed me with Noble’s depth of research.

Recommendation: I highly recommend Noble if you like well-researched historic romance and want something refreshing.

More Info

Publisher: Pocket Books
Edition ISBN: 9781476749402

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Book Review: The Lie and the Lady


Series #: Winner Takes All, #2
Genre: Fiction, Trashy Romance, Historical
Original Publication Date: 2015


Read: 22 Feb 2017

Summary: In The Game and the Governess, John Turner made a bet with his friend, Lord Edward Granville, that the lord would have a harder time with women as John Turner, who subsequently would have an easier time as Lord Granville. When the Lord fell in love with a governess and the game was up, Turner had also fallen in love with Countess Letitia, who is publicly humiliated for falling for a man of lower stature. She travels the continent, looking for a fresh start and thinks she’s found it in Sir Barty, but when he takes her home as his fiancé, John Turner is there. Life continues to throw the two of them together and Leticia must decide if she wants to keep her standing or go for love.

Review: Even though it’s been a while since I read the first book, I still really enjoyed this one. I sort of wish I’d been able to re-read the first one before starting the second, but I still remembered the characters. I spent a lot of the book predicting what was going to happen, but I still loved it. There are always distinct patterns in romance novels, but I am always willing to re-read my favorite books and especially willing to re-read my favorite tropes.

Recommendation: I highly recommend Kate Noble if you like historic romance and want to give something new a chance.

More Info

Publisher: Pocket Books

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Book Review: The Bad Beginning & The Reptile Room


Series #: A Series of Unfortunate Events, #1&2
Genre: Fiction, Adventure, Middle Grades, Mystery
Original Publication Date: 1999


Read: 22 – 25 Jan & 2-22 Feb 2017

Summary: The three Baudelaire children are enjoying their day at the beach when they’re brought terrible news: their parents have died in a tragic fire that consumed their house. With that the first in a series of unfortunate events, the Baudelaire orphans find themselves under the care of the dreadful and terrifying Count Olaf. They soon realize, it’s not just his personality that’s dreadful: his schemes are, too. As he makes plan after plan to wrest the Baudelaire fortune from the orphans before the oldest, Violet, comes of age, the siblings must deal with changing guardians and Olaf’s schemes and disguises.

Review: I first read these books when I was in middle school, so when I heard there was a new Netflix series coming out, I decided it was time to reread them. I also reread them in high school when the last book and the movie were coming out, but I mainly remember the first ones. I still like the way Snicket narrates to his audience, explaining things to young readers without talking down to them. I look forward to getting to the ones I don’t remember as well as the first ones.

Recommendation: I recommend these books to people who like junior novels that don’t follow the standard narrative tropes. And, of course, to middle schoolers.

More Info

Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.

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Book Review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up


Genre: Nonfiction, Lifestyle
Original Publication Date: 2010


Read: 15 – 21 Jan 2017

Summary: A worldwide sensation, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up details the KonMari method that Marie Kondo developed to teach her clients how to live clutter-free. She explains the reasoning and history behind the tidying best practices that she has use to make herself and her clients successful in junk-free lives.

Review: I first became aware of the KonMari method when NPR did a livestream of Kondo teaching how to properly fold socks. Since I have tons of socks, it was the perfect introduction. Now, as I’m cleaning out my childhood bedroom in preparation of being an adult, I wanted some tips and tricks on how best to cut back on Things. After all, I’ll need to move out of my parent’s house eventually. The method detailed made perfect sense and helped me get rid of childhood trinkets that have been collecting dust in my closet since I went away to college – the first time. Hopefully, my mom will read this book and we can clean out the rest of the house together!

Recommendation: If you want to re-evaluate the things in your life that have accumulated and live a neater, tidier life, I highly recommend this book.

More Info

Publisher: Ten Speed Press
Edition Publication Date: 2013