Thursday, April 30, 2015

April Site Update

The previous nine reviews are now archived and cross-linked on the main site.


Do Not Open This Book (Michaela Muntean)

Do Not Open This Book
Michaela Muntean, illustrations by Pascal Lemaitre
Scholastic Press
Fiction, YA Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Wait! Stop! Don't open this book - it hasn't even been written yet! A writer struggles to finish the story while a persistent reader insists on turning the pages.

REVIEW: Another quick read during a slowdown at work, I found this one amusing. The would-be writer struggles to come up with an idea (with a number of how-to-write books lying in the background) and put words in order, but every time the page turns something gets messed up. Eventually, the writer must learn to cooperate with the stubborn reader, in the process discovering that, without readers, a story wouldn't exist. The pictures are simple and fun.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Day the Crayons Quit (Drew Daywalt) - My Review
Little Red Writing (Joan Holub) - My Review
Chester (Melanie Watt) - My Review

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

What Do You Do With an Idea (Kobi Yamada)

What Do You With an Idea?
Kobi Yamada, illustrations by Mae Besom
Compendium Inc
Fiction, YA Picture Book
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: A child discovers an idea. Where did it come from? What to do with it? And what will it become?

REVIEW: Another read during down time at work, this is a great title for anyone, young and old, who finds themselves both delighted and bedeviled by ideas. From surprise to bewilderment, from fear to pride, the nameless child learns how to nurture an idea that nobody else seems to understand. The odd concept is interestingly and imaginatively illustrated by Besom, flowing pictures full of hidden meanings that reveal something new each time you look at them. A fun and inspiring book!

You Might Also Enjoy:
Imagine a Night (Robert Gonsalvez) - My Review Tell Me a Dragon (Jackie Morris) - My Review
The Cinder-Eyed Cats (Eric Rohmann) - My Review

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend (Dan Santat)

The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend
Dan Santat
Little, Brown Books
Fiction, YA Picture Book
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: After waiting and waiting for his human child to claim him from the island of imaginary friends, Beekle decides to take matters into his own hands. He sets sail for the real world. But finding his child isn't easy in such a strange place...

REVIEW: We had more down time at work, so I scrounged this one up while looking for something to read. A story about friendship, imagination, and courage, it features colorful artwork with some crazy creature designs; each imaginary friend is a unique creation. Beekle finds himself understandably confused by the real world, where only grown-ups get to eat cake and everyone needs naps. I gave it an extra half-star for overall imagination.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Chloe and the Lion (Max Barnett) - My Review
Journey (Aaron Becker) - My Review

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Carmilla (Joseph Sheridan le Fanu)

Joseph Sheridan le Fanu
Open Roads Media
Fiction, Fantasy/Horror
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Living alone with her father and servants at a castle deep in the Styrian hinterlands, a young English woman longs for company. As if delivered by Providence, a girl just about her age literally tumbles into their lives, thrown from a runaway carriage. Deemed too sickly to continue her journey, the girl's mother leaves Carmilla in the castle's care, promising to return for her in three months. There's something both charming and inscrutable about the frail young lady and the way she constantly evades questions about her origins... not to mention her peculiar bond, bordering on obsession, with the castle girl. Soon, a strange plague darkens the countryside, peasant girls falling deathly ill after ghostly encounters - sicknesses recalling the long tradition of the vampire. Is Carmilla another victim, or something more sinister?

REVIEW: Originally published in 1871, this short tale of obsession and horror is considered a major influence on Bram Stoker's later, yet far more famous, novel, Dracula. Carmilla, too, is both charming and terrifying by turns, a monster who toys with her victims in a most diabolical manner. She also displays the traditional vampiric sex appeal, this time directed toward her own gender (which I'm sure raised some turn-of-the-century eyebrows, and may explain why it remains relatively obscure today while Dracula can't get rewritten, revisited, or re-filmed enough.) The story establishes a suitably Gothic atmosphere, and though it drags now and again, I couldn't help thinking Bram Stoker drug things out worse. The wrap-up feels a little anti-climactic and rushed, costing it a full fourth star. Otherwise, this is a nicely chilling exploration of vampire lore.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Something Wicked This Way Comes (Ray Bradbury) - My Review
Coraline (Neil Gaiman) - My Review
Dracula (Bram Stoker) - My Review

Monday, April 13, 2015

Time Travel Dinosaur (Matt Youngmark)

Time Travel Dinosaur
(A Chooseomatic book, Book 3)
Matt Youngmark
Atherton Haight
Fiction, Sci-Fi
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: In the movies, time travel's chock full of awesome adventures, fun futuristic gizmos, amazing (or cheesy) special effects, and hot encounters with denizens of the past or future. In reality, it's a mind-numbing job that pays eleven bucks an hour, and you don't even get to take your own body. The timestream, apparently, can't actually be altered or broken in Bakulan time travel theory, so mostly you peek in on madmen (or madwomen) meddling with formulas they have no business meddling with. Boring, but it pays better than flipping burgers... even if you sometimes get stuck in a dog's body.
Then the insane professor you're watching via his Labrador Retriever, Betsy, gets murdered by his own doppelganger, and everything goes to heck.
Somehow, despite all known laws of quantum mechanics, someone's actually fractured the space-time continuum. A madman has set up camp in the Cretaceous Era, building a nefarious tower for who-knows-what reason (though, knowing madmen, it's bound to be bad.) Futuristic tech infiltrates 1880's Chicago, leading to the rise of a Steampunk Mafia. A cult worships a peculiar manifestation of the self-aware Universe from a moon base. Interdimensional time goblins threaten to destroy everything, everywhere, and everywhen. And that's just for starters.
You're about to embark on a time travel adventure like no other, filled with more thrills, danger, and outright absurdity than you can possibly imagine. Just remember your true mission, as you're zipping through time rifts and beating up alternate versions of yourself: to preserve the one true space-time continuum, the one where people evolved from dinosaurs.
Maybe that job at the burger joint wouldn't have been so bad, after all...

REVIEW: I picked this up on a whim at a sci-fi convention. Time travel? Dinosaurs? An homage to the classic Choose Your Own Adventure series, with 76 possible outcomes? Sold!
I'm not quite sure what I was expecting, given the title and premise, but this book quickly exceeded it. Not only is it a treat to read, frequently and gleefully breaking the fourth wall to talk to the reader, but all the choice-paths ultimately fit together. In one, you might encounter a man who evolved from a Labrador, or a T-Rex robot. In other paths, you learn where each came from. Items that turn up missing in one adventure are found in another. And, of course, there are many ways to get yourself killed... some more embarrassing than others. It's been a long time since I read a book that made me laugh out loud, and this one pulled it off more than once. It's also been a long time since I read a book that just plain had this much fun with itself, and with the reader. With so many choice-paths, it can be reread numerous times before exhausting all possibilities... and I confess that, as I write this, I'm still not sure I hit them all, despite a small forest worth of bookmarks and over a week of trying. The illustrations, by the author, add a nice extra touch of whimsy. Add in a hint of nostalgia, as someone who was practically raised on the old CYOA books, and this one rockets to the top of the ratings. If the rest of the Chooseomatic books are anywhere near this enjoyable, I'll have to track them down as soon as possible... or as soon as my budget allows. If not sooner.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Off to Be the Wizard (Scott Meyer) - My Review
The Wizard's Towers (Rhondi Vilott) - My Review
The Abominable Snowman/Journey Under the Sea/Space and Beyond/The Lost Jewels of Nabooti (Choose Your Own Adventure 1-4)- Amazon book link

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Wedding Trap (Adrienne Bell)

The Wedding Trap
(The Second Service series, Book 1)
Adrienne Bell
Adrienne Bell, publisher
Fiction, Romance
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Since the day she was born, Beth Bradley's been second fiddle in her own life. Her older sister got the better grades, the better school, and the perfect husband, while Beth got B's, a state college, and a string of losers exploiting her insecurities... as her mother never lets her forget. It's no wonder she took to inventing the perfect date, a ruse that's fooled everyone save her best friend Isobel. But now Isobel's getting married, and with a jealous ex on the scene, Beth's gotten herself into trouble (again.) This time, the imaginary "Charlie" won't be able to save her... or will he?
CIA agent Alex Tanner's after a rotten apple in the department. Nobody knows who he is or what he looks like, but they know that he's meeting one of his associates at a wedding. There's only so much snooping Alex can do without an invitation, and thus far he's coming up empty. Then a wedding guest catches him breaking into a suspect's car. Only instead of going to the hotel staff or police, she blackmails him: her silence in exchange for a brief appearance as someone called Charlie.
It was only supposed to be a five-minute deception, just enough to save face with Beth's family. But it quickly becomes more than that - much more. As lies accumulate and sparks fly, the most important and dangerous case in Alex's career threatens to destroy everything.

REVIEW: I downloaded this on my Nook during a freebie window, and read it in roughly two hours. Like most romances, it keeps its promises simple: a gorgeous woman, a handsome man, some convenient insecurities that have kept them both single, and a quick, steamy tumble from Total Strangers to True Love. On those fronts, The Wedding Trap delivers. Beth, however, is a little too clumsy and insecure, with problems that feel more like they come from a checklist than a genuine life lived beyond the confines of the story. Body issues: check. Overbearing, disapproving mother: check. Drinking her way through life's stresses (though never once considered an alcoholic): check. Alex also feels more like a stock character than a genuine person, a stormy-eyed lethal weapon in a suit whose protective instincts find a perfect match in Beth, who perpetually needs protecting. As the story progresses, Beth starts developing a backbone, but it doesn't quite flow naturally, given how easily intimidated and generally awkward she was at the start. As for Alex... well, he's pretty much perfect from the get-go, so the only thing he needs to do is open a crack in the wall around his heart. Some of the peripheral characters also felt shunted to the side, their subplots unresolved; I'd expected more of a climax to the jealous-ex issue, not to mention more from Beth's friend Isobel, whose wedding plans are significantly inconvenienced by international espionage. But the whole thing reads fast, and there's a decent level of steam to obscure some weakness in the overall plot. It's a competent little romance, if not quite my cup of cocoa.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Scoundrel for Hire (Adrienne deWolfe) - My Review
Concrete Evidence (Rachel Grant) - My Review
Evidence of Trust (Stacey Joy Netzel) - My Review

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Dragons Love (Stephen Parlato)

Dragons Love
Stephen Parlato
Simply Read Books
Fiction, YA Picture Book
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Hummingbirds, jewels, books, butterflies... Dragons love the world, and everything above, below, and within it. Author and artist Stephen Parlato explores the world as dragons see it, a place full of unexpected wonder.

REVIEW: With simple, short verses and amazing illustrations, this is a gem of a picture book. Parlato's illustrations create dragons out of birds, bugs, fish, flags, and more, an imaginative visual treat that invites lingering. Young or old, any dragon-lover should make room for this one on their bookshelves!

You Might Also Enjoy:
Dragon (Jody Bergsma) - My Review
Tell Me a Dragon (Jackie Morris) - My Review
The Dragons Are Singing Tonight (Jack Prelutsky) - My Review

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Great Expectations (Charles Dickens)

Great Expectations
Charles Dickens
Public Domain Books
Fiction, General Fiction
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Orphaned Pip, brought up by the cruel hand of his sole surviving sister and her long-suffering blacksmith husband Joe Gargery, was often told how miserable a child he was and how poor his prospects were. It never truly bothered him until the day he was invited to the estate of the reclusive Miss Havisham and met the old woman's ward, the lovely Estella. It hardly matters to Pip that she's a cruel, capricious young lady, whose first meeting left him in tears as she insulted his low birth and coarse hands. It hardly matters that a blacksmith's apprentice cannot hope to court, let alone win, someone of her prospects and stations. From that moment on, he determines he will become a gentleman, even if he doesn't yet know how. When, some years later, a lawyer arrives to inform him that he has great expectations - an unknown benefactor of prodigious means, who wishes him to move to London and raise himself in society - it seems the answer to his prayers... but dreams and reality are two very different things. Pip will need more than luck and money to make his fortune and his future.

REVIEW: I suppose, yet again, my general lack of education shows here. Widely considered a classic, this story nearly bored me out of reading it several times. Dickens dances around meanings and words in a way that had me wishing he'd encountered an editor as firm and swift with the switch as Mrs. Gargery. Granted, he was writing for a different audience, with different literary expectations and societal understandings, than exists today. In his time, perhaps, it wouldn't have seen impossibly outlandish that a woman would devote her entire adult life to nursing a single grudge, warping the lives of those around her and manipulating them to ridiculous extremes and degrees, or that the entire adult population of a small village would devote itself to demeaning one young boy. Pip's unreasoning obsession with becoming "uncommon" and reaching the unreachable heart of a lady who openly admits she has none might also have evoked less eye-rolling and tooth-grinding, as might his utter passivity through most of the story. I will also grant that Dickens evokes some distinctive imagery and characters, though the latter often lean toward caricatures (with a few racial stereotypes thrown in for good measure.) But it just plain takes too long in its meandering, painstaking setup. Dickens also fails to engage me in Pip's life, beyond the people he meets: for all that he's a blacksmith's apprentice, I barely saw any of the forges, and when he's partaking of his gentlemanly education and pursuits, I'm given no real clue as to how he's actually spending his time or what he's really doing. (Again, though, this may be a problem stemming from me being a twenty-first century American.) It isn't until well past the halfway point that the pace picks up and the threads of Pip's long, verbose journey begin to come together in a most melodramatic manner - and Pip finally realizes he's been an unlikable ingrate. The conclusion itself is just too neat to be believed. In the end, while I enjoyed some of the descriptions, and Dickens has a way of creating memorable characters (in the supporting cast and around the periphery, if not in the starring role), I found the storyline too contrived, Pip himself too hard to care about, and the whole thing just too long and slow for me to enjoy.

You Might Also Enjoy:
A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens) - My Review
Assassin's Apprentice (Robin Hobb) - My Review
The Name of the Wind (Patrick Rothfuss) - My Review

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Bunnicula (Deborah and James Howe)

(The Bunnicula and Friends series, Book 1)
Deborah and James Howe
Avon Camelot
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Shaggy mutt Harold and his friend, the well-read (if over-imaginative and excitable) tabby Chester, live the good life with their human family, the Mortons... until the night a stranger comes home from the movies with them. At a showing of Dracula, the Morton boy Toby found a small black and white bunny in a shoebox full of dirt, apparently abandoned, with an indecipherable note around its neck - a note that, thanks to Russian wolfhound ancestry, Harold recognizes as an obscure dialect from Transylvania. As odd as that is, even more peculiar things soon start happening in the household, causing Chester to suspect that the newcomer is no innocent little rabbit, but a full-blown vampire.

REVIEW: On one level, it's easy to see why this is a childhood classic. Though there's an overall silly air to both the concept and the characters, particularly in Chester's overreactions and attempts to protect the Mortons and Harold from the doom in the bunny cage, there's just enough of a creepy vibe in its Dracula-inspired story and imagery to give youngsters a bit of a chill - not much, but just a touch. On the other hand, it's showing its age around the edges, and not just when one Morton boy spends an evening listening to records. The narrative (written by the dog Harold) and the dialog get a little too ridiculous at times. It's also hard, especially as an adult reader, to reconcile several inconsistencies. The Mortons are supposed to be a smart family, with a professor father and lawyer mother and children willing to use a dictionary to tackle classics like Treasure Island, but they're remarkably stupid about pet ownership. Harold's favorite treat is chocolate, which he's fed quite often and in considerable quantities. Chocolate's cumulative toxic effects on canines has been known for some time, at least as far back as this book dates, and feeding it to pets is not something a children's book really needs to push. The Mortons' treatment of Chester also shows a distinct lack of knowledge about cats, and they're a bit clueless about rabbit care as well. (But, then, the ostensibly intelligent parents took an eight-year-old child to a night showing of Dracula... maybe they're not supposed to be as bright as narrator Harold thinks.) Ultimately, I wound up with a three-and-a-half star rating. While the premise is great and the story generally fun, I just found a few too many problems to completely enjoy it.
(And, yes, I'd intended to review this one at Halloween, but the book was hiding from me; Easter seemed the next most appropriate holiday.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Night of the Gargoyles (Eve Bunting) - My Review
Redwall (Brian Jacques) - My Review
Ghost Witch (Betty Ren Wright) - My Review