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The Diviners (The Diviners, #1)The Diviners by Libba Bray

This may be my favorite Libba Bray book yet! I’ve had mixed reactions to her earlier titles. I enjoyed A Great and Terrible Beauty, but had some issues with the fantasy aspect of the story (and that continued through the rest of the series, culminating in my 1 star review of The Sweet Far Thing). Then I thought that Going Bovine had some great things going for it, but didn’t quite work. Same thing for Beauty Queens, which was hilarious and biting but otherwise flawed. Here we go, though – here’s a happy medium between her tendency to go over the top and throw it ALL in, and her fantastic sense of characters and dialogue and setting.

Okay, maybe she goes a little over the top – there are an awful lot of characters, and there’s an awful lot of setting things up for the rest of the series. The set up is all marvelous, but the loose ends may bug some readers more than others (I was particularly interested in what would become of Theta and Memphis, who factor into the resolution but don’t play as large a part as I expected based on all the set up). Bray also goes a little over the top with Evie’s slang, but the saving grace here is that she’s the only character who speaks in slang, and the story is spread out over so many characters.

The book has got humor, suspense, a fantastically realized setting, and a decent pace despite the length. There’s a little romance, a bit of action, some genuinely creepy scenes – basically a little bit of everything.

I was curious to see how creepy and suspenseful the story felt on audio – perhaps a bit less than it would have on the page, reading in a dim room at bedtime. The narration is well done – the women’s voices slightly better than the men’s, but it’s fun to hear all the slang and accents and so on. This is one I’ll easily recommend to high schoolers.

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The ApothecaryThe Apothecary by Maile Meloy

I almost wish I’d read this one in print instead of listening to it – the narration is competent, but it never quite added anything to the story. I suspect the illustrations in the print version might have added more. My only quibble with the narration was that her accents occasionally crept over into the narration.

The story itself is a promising blend of historical fiction and fantasy, with the potential to explore larger political themes. I loved the bits of the book that set the stage – the shift from California to London, the weather and food and cultural differences. The fantastic elements were nicely done, explained within the context of the story and with a bit of fun to balance out the serious parts.

I think the primary thing that stopped me from loving the book more was a disconnect between the age of the characters and the tone of the story. I was so surprised to find that Janie was in high school – my first impression of her was that she was much younger, maybe 10 or 11 or 12, tops. She never rang true as a high schooler – and the whole story just felt younger. Perhaps Meloy did that to make her independence more plausible, but I either wanted the characters to be younger or the tone to be more sophisticated.

At any rate, I enjoyed this and would recommend it to kids who enjoy stories that are a mix of reality and fantasy.

Source: my public library

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Blood Red RoadBlood Red Road by Moira Young

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

1st try in print: This came recommended, but the first 100 or so pages didn’t grab me – or maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood. It had holds at the library and I didn’t feel like getting even further in and risk feeling like I needed to finish it just because I’d read so much. Maybe another time.

2nd try on audio: The moral of this story is to trust your gut. If a book doesn’t grab you, it’s okay to quit even though people you trust rave and it wins awards like the Cybils. The premise was intriguing, and the beginning of the story sets up lots of potential themes. The father with his star reading, the heartstone, the complicated family relationships, midwinter twins, kids raised in near-isolation thrown into a rough world. But one after another, Young drops the ball on all this potential. The story becomes action-driven, rather than character-driven, which is fine if the action manages to hook you. It sure didn’t hook me – the cage fighting was the first thing to put me off, and by the time the big showdown at the end arrived, I was only interested in seeing whether she’d leave us with a cliff-hanger or a neater resolution.

The characters had great potentional – Saba’s adoring attitude towards her twin Lugh and her near-hatred of little sister Emmi could have had some great nuance, but other than a predictable build-up of affection for Emmi, nothing much happened. Like another reviewer pointed out, Saba has an incredible ability to fight and interact with the wider world considering her isolated upbringing. Others have compared her to some awesome kick-ass heroines, but she lacks their prickly likableness. The romance is dull and the heartstone’s role painfully predictable. I kept expecting various intrigues – I wanted Lugh to turn out to be a huge jerk, just because Saba idolized him. I wanted the king to be more interesting, but he was simply bizarre. I wanted more.

The audio version is nicely done, though, all things considered. The dialect that comes across as distracting on the page feels natural when spoken aloud, and Heather Lind does some good voices, nicely distinguishing characters.

Source: both versions from my public library

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I stopped beating myself up about writing something about everything I read (quality over quantity being the idea) and instead I’ve been writing…nothing much. So here’s an attempt to dip my toes back into the water and make it fun again. These are all February reads that I haven’t already blogged about, but wanted to put out there as well worth picking up:

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. This one hardly needs more buzz, and books with buzz often end up being disappointing – but this is the exception. The buzz is not wrong, but it’s still best if you can set it aside and enjoy the book on its own merits. It’s funny and raw. Some readers have accused the book of doing exactly what the characters hate – somehow romanticizing kids with cancer or turning into entertainment – while others wonder whether teens actually talk and think this way. The second question bugs me because I want to see more characters like these – smart, intelligent teens who also act like teens. While I can’t claim to being this smart or well-read in high school, I would’ve eaten these characters up with a spoon because I would’ve wanted to read and think and discuss like them. There is nothing wrong with a high standard. The first question is trickier, and I won’t try to answer it except to say that it didn’t prevent me from finding the book emotionally and intellectually stimulating. Also, I started this on a dinner break at work, but for the love of dignity, read the second half alone, or around people who understand crying over books.

The Cheshire Cheese Cat by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright. I listened to this one, as read by the incomparable Katherine Kellgren. It’s full of nods to the works of Charles Dickens, and he features as a character in the story, but they’re more extras than essential to enjoying this fun story of a cheese-loving cat and a band of mice. Fun, and especially recommended to fans of stories told from the perspective of  animal characters.

The Isle of Blood by Rick Yancey. I had this one checked out forever before picking it up, but I’m glad I did because it’s my favorite so far in the series. This one has all the appeal factors of the first two – Victorian style, gore, monsters, fabulous characters – but the relationship between Warthrop and Will Henry deepens in a way that caught me off guard. Will Henry is growing up! Plus, the whole monster chasing bit at the end had some great twists. Recommended to fans of the series, but you should really start with The Monstrumologist and go on from there.

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos. You’ve got to listen to this one on audio if you’re an audiobook fan, because listening to Jack Gantos read you the story of Jack Gantos is perfection. His voice is quirky and distinctive and serves to highlight all the black humor. The cover does this a disservice, because the story is dark and funny and a bit rambling, but filled with a fascinating sense of history and place and childhood. The whole thing is awash in nosebleeds and dead old ladies, with some fantastic obituaries and an appearance by the Hell’s Angels. Just read it already. This year’s Newbery winner!

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley. After something of a slow set-up (I was puzzled by the alternate chapters from different viewpoints for quite a while) the story gets going. It’s both suspenseful and ordinary, dealing with the disappearance of Cullen’s younger brother and the everyday despair of a dying small town. It’s also frequently funny, enough to keep the whole thing from dragging down, and has brilliantly realistic characters. Recommended for teens & adults who like stories that pack a punch without much action, and for readers who like character-driven stories. This year’s Printz and Morris winner!

I have a few longer reviews that I’ll post separately, and then we can move onto March and (sooner or later) my hesitant embrace of ebooks.

The Emerald Atlas (The Books of Beginning #1)The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens

I once tried to listen to Jim Dale read the first Harry Potter book, and stopped less than an hour in. I won’t say I’ve been completely won over to his voice, but it did feel well-suited to this fantasy/time travel adventure, particularly the voices of the dwarves!

While the story itself didn’t feel completely original, it did have a few elements that made it feel fresh. I enjoyed the combination of traditional children’s fantasy (the evil Countess and her frightening creatures, the dwarves, the children setting off on a quest/adventure) and time travel, which I tend to think of as it’s own category (traveling to an actual time in our history, as opposed to traveling to a time in a fantastical history). Some of the characters felt a bit flat at times, and I occasionally had trouble remembering which child had which adventure. Apart from that, an enjoyable story that I’ll recommend to my legions of fantasy fans.

Source: my public library

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Beauty Queens (Audio CD)Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

Beauty Queens is equally awesome and awful. Awesome: the premise of a plane full of beauty pageant contestants crashing on a deserted (or is it?) island, and a narrative structure full of commercial breaks, footnotes explaining fictional pop-culture references, and Libba Bray’s wicked sense of humor.

Not as awesome is the (thin and ridiculous) plot that sags under the weight of too much time spent on flat characters and shoved-in-your-face issues. While flat characters and a ridiculous plot might be exactly what the book calls for, they can’t sustain the bloat of the book. What is laughing-so-hard-you-cry funny can quickly turn to disinterest and annoyance when there’s just too much of everything.

Libba Bray narrates the book herself, which is mostly fantastic (not so much her accents, which she does enthusiastically but terribly). The humor comes across perfect in her voice, and the sound effects that accompany the extras (footnotes, commercials, etc.) help distinguish them, along with her incredible ranges of inflections. A small detail that I particularly loved were the introductions to each disc (I’m not sure what form these take, if any, in the print version) – a high, ditzy voice saying things like “Beauty Queens, disc 5. Oh my gosh, now I’ve used all the fingers on one hand!” or “Beauty Queens, disc 12. I got my period when I was 12…I think.”

In short, if one can be short when talking about a book like Beauty Queens, you might think this is the best book ever. Or you might throw it down in disgust. Or you might be constantly tempted to ditch it, like me, until you suddenly realize that your hatred has turned to respect (mostly). The interview section with the author at the end helped finish things on a sweet note.

I didn’t give this one a star rating because it would either be 1 or 4 stars and anything in between felt wishy-washy.

Source: my public library

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I’m in a reading slump.  Oh, the shame!  My library shelf is full of delicious looking books, but whenever I pick one up, I move through it like molasses.  I’ve only finished three books this month – three!

I’ve been shunning my audio book (Beauty Queens) in favor of listening to NPR – although that might be the fault of the book.  The beginning had me hooked but then…I have no idea where it’s going.  Libba Bray, you and I need to have a talk about this – you lure me in repeadedly (A Great and Terrible BeautyGoing Bovine!) and then you drop me (ahem, The Sweet Far Thing).  I wasn’t exactly surprised when my enthusiasm for Beauty Queens cooled, but like the other books it just had so many good reviews.  And I liked the first couple of discs.  We’ll see about you.

I’m also just started rereading Chime on audio – I was curious to see how it felt on a reread, and how it came across listening instead of in print.  I’m also still trying to decide if it’s awesome or somewhat fatally flawed.  So far I’m digging it, although I’m listening in the house and I do tend to space out a bit when distracted by cooking or housework or whatever else I’m doing at the same time.

In print, it took me five days to get through After Hamelin, which was what my kids’ bookgroup picked for November in my absence.  Enjoyable, but it never had me enthralled.  Before that, I felt the same way about The Boy at the End of the World – funny and plenty of adventure, but never a page-turner or full of rich characters and atmosphere.  I think I need one or the other to really dig a book.

Before that was Icefall, which was pretty fabulous, and before that Daughter of Smoke and Bone which was definitely fabulous.  So they haven’t all failed to grip me, but I still feel like I’m in a slump.  Or maybe I’m just not dedicating enough time to reading.  What have I been doing?  I sure haven’t been writing my thank-yous or finding homes for the rest of the wedding gifts.  And here I am with half of a day off (hurray for holidays and three-day weekends, the perk of a public service job) and nothing to show for it other than a nearly-consumed apple oven pancake and…um…shoot, I’d better go take a shower and get something done.

The SaturdaysThe Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m sure I read this as a child – I MUST have read this as a child, since I devoured these kinds of old-fashioned books – but no specific elements of the book made me say, “yes, I remember that moment!” Still, the whole atmosphere of the book felt intensely familiar – the children, their plans to have more thrilling Saturdays, the comfortable housekeeper, the accidents and mishaps and charm of the thing.

This is one of those stories that you have to experience to appreciate – the plot summary doesn’t do it justice – and I found the audio version an excellent way to experience it. Pamela Dillman’s voice suits the world of the story nicely, giving distinct voices to each character and adding to the old-fashioned charm.

Without any hesitation, I’d recommend this as a great family read-aloud or audiobook for a car trip. While it’s hard to imagine kids today having as much freedom to roam as the Melendys, in any town but especially in New York, it only makes the story more magical 70 years after it was written.

Source: my public library

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The Penderwicks at Point MouetteThe Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Penderwicks only improve with age – each book in the series attaches me more firmly to the family, and each time I reread a book I appreciate it more. Which isn’t to say that they aren’t rewarding on the first read – quite the opposite. This third book marks the first time I listened to it before reading the print version (I’ve also reread it in print). The audio version is outstanding – both Birdsall and Susan Denaker, the narrator, do an excellent job at distinguishing between the characters. When I reread, I kept hearing Denaker’s voice in my head for certain characters and lines.

The book begins with the family being torn apart – Mr. Penderwick, Iantha and Ben to England, Rosalind to New Jersey, and the rest of the girls to Maine with Aunt Claire. After some time spent following Rosalind, we switch to the younger girls for the rest of the book, until the very last chapter when we find Rosalind again. She’s back at home, waiting for the rest of her family to return, feeling that anticipation. The books ends just as they all reunite, which felt like the perfect ending.

The second time around, I loved the foreshadowing of various things, some of which I picked up on when I listened to the book, and other things only in hindsight (the duck, for example). In fact, I have a hard time separating my love of these books from a more critical approach. But I do think that the ability to sweep up a reader into the world of these characters, to make them feel like real people, is a mark of excellence. True, there is a bit of a rosy hue to some parts of the story, but I also think that fiction can get rapped over the knuckles too much when it comes to coincidence. Life – life outside of books – is filled with amazing, mind-boggling coincidences, the kinds of things that would seem unreal if we encountered them in fiction. I’m inclined to give fiction a pass for a certain quantity of coincidences – what happened here felt perfect and right as opposed to unbelievable.

Birdsall says on her website that there will be a total of five books about the Penderwicks, and knowing this makes me look for plot strands that she might pick up in a later book. Some of the plot of this one has been coming since the first book, so now I try to imagine what will happen to the family in two more volumes. One thing that I’m almost certain of concerns Aunt Claire, but mostly I’m anxious to see what happens to the girls as they grow up. Also, I think I’ve decided on Batty as a favorite – she’s come a long way since her days in wings.

Source: my public library (both audio and print editions)

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Okay for NowOkay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you liked The Wednesday Wars, you must read this. Schmidt hits a lot of the same notes again, but his style – the voice, the characters, the whole thing – is so pitch perfect that I immediately wanted to start it over from the beginning (a rare feeling for me). In fact, I listened to the audio and then read the print version a few months later. The only downside to the audio is that you’ll want to look up the Audubon illustrations in a book or online, because they’re really key to the story. When I reread the print version, I found myself flipping back to that chapter’s illustration anytime the image was discussed.

The book’s only flaw is that it stuffs in a few too many things plot-wise, but for me that never detracted from the story. Not perfect, but pretty close. And I’m not lying.

Source: my public library

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February 2023

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