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The Castle of Llyr (The Chronicles of Prydain, #3) The Castle of Llyr by Lloyd Alexander

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This continues my rereading of the Prydain Chronicles, and I’m still having as much fun as ever, plus enjoying the audio versions. What’s interesting is seeing which details are familiar and which come as a surprise. In this book, Taran and Eilonwy really start to feel like teenagers, although the action of the book is still at a level that younger readers can grasp and appreciate. There are more complex themes at play (and if I remember correctly, this continues in the final two books as well) but these themes are not employed at the expense of the humor and adventure. The characters are sometimes predictable in their behavior, but they manage to grow and change at the same time. I’ve had lots of requests for audio recommendations lately (we’re heading into car-trip season) and I’ll have to remember to press this series into someone’s hands if they manage to stay on the shelf long enough – I think they’d work well with a variety of ages.

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The Mysterious Howling (The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, #1) The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood

This book had me at “Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females.” A delicious send-up of the whole destitute governess genre (or at least the Brontes) with a dash of children-raised-by-wolves and a very chatty narrator. This isn’t realistic, gritty historical fiction, but a rarer brand of historical fiction that isn’t afraid to poke fun and remind the readers that this all happened long ago. The tone is delightful, the pace is fairly brisk, and there’s a mystery that remains unsolved at the end, despite a fiasco of a Christmas party, an incident with a squirrel, and a wise governess. Of course, this sets us up for next time, and I’m certainly curious to see what happens to “Lumawoo” and her charges next. Plus, someone really needs to figure out that strange howling behind the wall.

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All I seem to write these days are book reviews, written a month after the fact and with already hazy memory.  It’s more like an exercise in what I remember about a book than in really digging into things and writing a proper review.  Oh well – better late than never.  It’s interesting to see what sticks, and which books I have trouble finding something to say about, and which reviews just roll off the tongue (or my fingers).  It definitely, definitely comes in handy that I keep track of what I read – I use that list all the time at work to jog my memory for recommendations and book-lists.

At any rate, here’s a change of pace with a recipe that I assigned to Bronwen for the weekend of Palm Sunday – yes, two months ago.  Since that was the last weekend of the Lenten fast, I made them vegan, and ever since I’ve been meaning to make them again to see how they turn out with the correct ingredients.  And then once I made them again, I was going to report back.  But that second batch still hasn’t managed to materialize – maybe I’ll be inspired on Monday and turn them into Memorial Day buns – somehow that seems appropriate.

Being a yeast dough, this recipe requires a little patience, but not too much actual work.  I used this Hot Cross Bun recipe, which I believe I also used last year.  I replaced the milk, butter and eggs with almond milk, coconut oil, and egg replacer, which probably made for denser buns.  However, the flavor was great and the denseness satisfying.  Also, I was kind of enamored with the zests, as you can see, so I added some extra (pretty much one lemon’s worth and one orange’s worth).  I also cut out the dried fruit, since I don’t really care about it either way.

Instead of the recommended egg glaze and dough crosses, I made icing with powdered sugar and a little almond milk.  I made it too thin so my icing crossing were a little dribbly and malformed, but a touch of frosting adding a nice sweet note.

At my church, we traditionally make these for Palm Sunday and serve them after liturgy.  I left a few at home, just in case I didn’t manage to grab one of my own, and ate them for breakfast the next day.  Gosh, my mouth is watering just thinking about them.  I’m a sucker for a hot cross bun – why limit them to one holiday?  (We do this in my family – take foods strongly associated with one holiday and eat them at other points in the year – like our annual Turkey Dinner in May, which is coming up this Sunday).

The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I read this for the first time two years ago, here’s what I had to say:

“I was already a big fan of Rex’s picture book, Pssst! so I wasn’t surprised to find myself enjoying Smekday in much the same way – pragmatic main character, goofy side characters, delightful illustrations, quirky sense of humor, and an unexpected take on things. This one is great fun with plenty of humor, and a plot that doesn’t drag – but surprisingly thoughtful given the context. Definitely recommended – our protagonist is a girl, but I that shouldn’t put off boys. Slightly older kids might get more of the humor, but I think it would be enjoyable for anyone capable of reading (or listening to) it.”

Then I talked my kids’ bookgroup into reading it (with the help of one member who was already a fan), and since I’d just bought a copy of the audiobook, I gave that format a try for my reread. It was worth it just to hear Bahni Turpin’s rendition of J. Lo’s voice – she really does manage to sound like sheep and bubble wrap at the same time. Plus, she manages to capture Tip’s tone very nicely, and that made the whole experience just as hilarious and fun as reading the book. The only drawback to the audio version is that you miss J. Lo’s comics and Tip’s Polaroids (as illustrated by Rex). The text of the comics are read aloud, but if you’re listening to it and aren’t already familiar with the book, I highly recommend getting your hands on a paper copy and taking a peak.

The bookgroup kids thoroughly enjoyed it – I always have them rate books on a scale of 1-10, and most of them ended up giving it 10+ (they like to get creative with the points).

Also, I have this book to thank for the introduction of the phrases “whatnow” and “wherefore are you knowing it?” into my everyday conversation.

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The Merchant of Death (Pendragon, #1) The Merchant of Death by D.J. MacHale

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
The kids’ bookgroup that I run at the library chose this book for May, and it was suggested by a bright, articulate girl so let’s just say that expected better things from it. Would I have finished the first chapter otherwise? Probably not. Would I finished the book if it weren’t for bookgroup? Definitely not.

I think this falls into the category of big, fat fantasy series where the appeal is largely based on plot – nothing too nuanced, but action packed and with easy to read stock characters. You don’t have to think much while you read it, because everything is laid out for you – lots of telling and no showing. Key pieces of information are repeated frequently, just in case you missed them in the previous paragraph.

For example: “It was Uncle Press! He walked out of the tunnel with his long leather coat flapping against his legs. I could have hugged him. In fact, I did. I ran over to him like a little kid. If this were a movie, I’d have been running in slow motion. I threw my arms around him with the feeling of pure joy and gratitude that I wasn’t alone anymore, and that my favorite guy in the world wasn’t shot dead by that Saint Dane guy. He was safe.”

Lots of short, simple sentences with plenty of repetition of the main idea: Bobby is glad that his uncle is safe. This makes it easy to read, sure, but it’s awfully clunky and doesn’t give kids any credit for being able to pick up on Bobby’s relief themselves. What makes this even more incredible is that we’re supposed to believe that these are Bobby’s handwritten journals, sent magically back to his friends at home. Sure.

Another painful aspect of the fantasy world is the way it doesn’t seem to be thoroughly thought-out. For instance, this “territory” has three suns in “opposite corners of the sky.” These suns all rise and set at the same time. They all reach high noon at the same time. There is no explanation for how this is physically possible. Do they revolve around the planet, instead of the planet moving around the suns? Who knows! Also, travel through time and space is conveniently dealt with using the explanation that Travelers arrive whenever they need to arrive. However, this doesn’t stop Uncle Press from whisking Bobby away from his normal life at a moment’s notice. If they arrive when they’re meant to arrive, couldn’t they take their time?

You might be asking, why did I give this book a whole two stars. Good question. The plot actually holds together for the most part. It’s simplistic, the characters are pretty flat, and something is lacking in the style, but it actually manages to keep up the pace and reach a conclusion. And the bookgroup kids liked it, although they’re always pretty generous with their ratings (although I was very proud of the kid who, after our discussion where I brought up the suns thing, said he took a point off because of issues like that).

Source: public library

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Last month there was an interesting discussion about faking nice in blog reviews – which I didn’t quite buy, because I don’t say nice things unless I mean them, but I could see both sides of the argument.  Most reviews in blogland are fairly positive, and I don’t think it’s appropriate to blast the author personally even if you hate the book.

But there’s something so fun and cathartic about a negative review.  They’re so easy to write and it gets that bad experience out of your system.   Plus, I think it’s appropriate to warn other readers against a book, especially if you back up your opinion and don’t just say “I hated it!”   And I’d kind of like to see more negative reviews.  It seems like a lot of blog reviewers choose to not write reviews of books they didn’t like – not that people are faking nice, they’re just avoiding negativity.  If that works for you, great, but I don’t think anyone should hesitate about being critical.

The Red Pyramid (Kane Chronicles, #1) The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan

When I read the Percy Jackson books, I remembered just enough about Greek mythology to predict some things and recognize a few characters. Here, with Egyptian mythology, I recognized plenty of names but I barely knew anything about their identities, which made for a more suspenseful ride. This was balanced out, though, by the length of the story and the time spent setting things up. And while I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, I was never in that state of being anxious to find out what happens.

The narration is split between siblings Sadie and Carter, who have been raised separately and are only brought together when their father releases the Egyptian gods from exile. While I like the ideal of dual narrators, their voices aren’t quite distinct enough to remember who’s narrating. This is really a shame, and it makes me wonder what the book would’ve been like if told from the third person, with the focus shifting from sibling to sibling, with some glimpses into their thoughts. That way, the text would constantly remind you who is acting or thinking, and similarities in the way they think wouldn’t be as problematic. Because as much as Carter and Sadie tease each other, they really are very much alike.

And of course, this is the beginning of a series and a few things are left hanging, but there’s a decent amount of resolution and no cliffhangers. While I think this might be a slightly more challenging read than the Percy Jackson books, I think there are plenty of kids who’ve finished Percy and are ready for a new set of mythological characters. I’m curious to see if other Egyptian mythology books get a boost from this series – I sure hope so, especially after the rash of Greek mythology titles following Percy.

Source: public library (of course I ordered a copy)

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The Patron Saint of Liars: A Novel The Patron Saint of Liars: A Novel by Ann Patchett

A completely satisfying novel. Patchett does wonders with characters, and the setting plays an important role here, too. There’s the former hotel, now a home for unwed mothers, there’s the call of the open road, there’s California and Kentucky, there’s a swimming hole and a tiny house and more open road. But the characters stick with you, even when you disagree with them or hate what they do to each other. You might wish things turned out differently – at several points along the way – but it’s still compelling.

Source: bought a copy at Powell’s.

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Heist Society Heist Society by Ally Carter

Kat wants out of the family business, but when the family business is, um, theft, that can be a little tricky. Especially after her father is threatened and she’s got to find a way to steal back the paintings that he allegedly stole. A fun, fast-paced and snappy read that takes you through art heists, museum security, double dealing, and across Europe. The mood reminded me of the movie How to Steal a Million – and I don’t think that Audrey Hepburn-ish cover is an accident. And fortunately for us, Carter set things up for the possibility of a sequel – the main plot is tied up but a few personal loose ends are left hanging – and hopefully she won’t let us down. Perfect for a quick summer read.

This fits nicely into that inbetween area between children’s fiction and young adult – the characters are in high school and do crazy things like organize art heists, but there’s no violence and the romance is minimal and discreet, so I’d definitely hand it to a middle schooler.

Source: public library (and yeah, I ordered a copy for my library because I have the power!)

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Peace, Locomotion Peace, Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson

Woodson has a way of saying a lot in a few words, and she pulls it off again in this sequel to Locomotion (and thank goodness they’re giving her some better covers now!) While this one stands on its own, you get much more background and context if you read the first one – and why not, they’re both quick books. While the first one was written as a series of poems written by Lonnie, this one is composed of letters he writes to his little sister, who is living with a different foster family.

What stands out are the characters and their relationships with each other – Lonnie and his foster mother, his foster brothers (including one recently back from war), and his friends at school. They all feel like real people that you’ve glimpsed briefly but who you instantly know.

The book touches on a lot of “issues” without ever really being an issue-driven book. You’ve got the death of Lonnie’s parents, living in foster care, veterans coming back from war – but it’s still a book very much about the experience of being a kid.

While I usually like to spend more time with a book, read something where you spend more time with those characters, Woodson does what she does so well that I give in and go along for the ride.

Source: my public library

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The Swan Thieves The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

While this lacked the page-turner suspense of The Historian, it also lacked The Historian’s let-down of an ending. This is only fair because it’s a very different story, and while there is some suspense, it’s never nail-biting, but rather comes from the way Kostova builds the story from various accounts, old letters, and one central narrator.

That central narrator – a psychiatrist who becomes personally involved in learning the history of a silent patient – was in fact my main problem with the story. I simply didn’t care as much about him as I did about the women in the story – a painter in 19th century France, the patient’s ex-wife, the patient’s ex-girlfriend, who were all much more compelling characters. The patient himself is largely seen through other characters’ perspectives, so he remains a little fascinating and enigmatic (and annoying, but in an interesting way). While I wanted to learn the answer to the riddle the psychiatrist was uncovering, I didn’t care if he ever learned the answer himself.

On a side note, the story was a little over-run with May-December romances and characters who took themselves much too seriously. On the other hand, it was a largely enjoyable novel-y novel, and I would recommend it to people who want that big fat novel experience with a little art and mystery thrown in for spice.

Source: public library

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May 2010

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