November 30, 2015

Reading for the Holidays

I hope everyone enjoyed Thanksgiving!  (At least, those of us in the US.)  I've definitely enjoyed the break from work.  The weather has been frightful, but the company was good!

I did just a bit of shopping this week, which included a trip to Half Price Books.  My haul is tucked safe in the rain, so I can't show you pictures.  I bought a vintage cookbook for my dad, some old C.J. Cherryh novels with great pulp covers, a couple of Eloise James romances, and a copy of SHARP OBJECTS by Gillian Flynn that was on clearance for $1.

The Great Ice EngineThe Casquette Girls As for what I've actually been reading, my focus has been on my reading for the CYBILs.  I'm on the panel for YA Speculative Fiction, and it seems like the deadline looms ever closer!  The shortlist will be revealed January 1st.  I did take a break to read THE CASQUETTE GIRLS by Alys Arden, review to come.

WinterThe Rose SocietyMy niece is definitely a budding reader.  She came prepared to Thanksgiving dinner with a book: Anna and Elsa #4: THE GREAT ICE ENGINE.  Frozen fever is still going strong for her!  She had me read a few chapters to her in a quiet moment.  I found it interesting that the book appeared to be diving deeper into the economics and industry of Arendelle -- an interesting choice for a kids' book!

The Nest My fourteen-year-old cousin also loves to read and came prepared to Thanksgiving with two books.  She only got to one of them that day, THE ROSE SOCIETY by Marie Lu.  She liked it so much that she had a book hangover!  We (plus a few others) went to see The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 on Friday, and she started the second book afterward.  She said that the movie helped clear her head of the characters, who were lingering.  The second book was one that I gave her for her recent birthday, WINTER by Marissa Meyer.  The Lunar Chronicles are her favorite series, as noted when we were playing the favorites game to entertain my niece and nephew.

My younger, sixth-grader cousin might not have been reading those days, but she let me know that she loved THE NEST by Kenneth Oppel and illustrated by Jon Klassen.  Apparently it's become one of her favorites since I gave it to her!  She's a total fan of creepy-cute things, so I figured she'd like it, but it is nice to know for sure.

November 25, 2015

Review: Hillary Rodham Clinton Presidential Playset

Hillary Rodham Clinton Presidential Playset 10 Paper Dolls, Three Rooms of Fun, Republican Adversaries, Presidential Pantsuits, White House Ghosts, and More!
Illustrated by Caitlin Kuhwald
Available now from Quirk Books
Review copy

I love paper dolls, so I couldn't resist the lure of a set of Hillary Clinton paper dolls.  This set has everything you need.  It unfolds into three backgrounds for your scenes.  It has a pouch for storing the pieces.  It has Hillary, with several outfits and even more faces.  It has Bill Clinton, a variety of Republicans, a Secret Service agent, Supreme Court Justices, and an eagle.  It even has a few props.

Each piece is on sturdy paper with thick tabs.  It is fairly easy to punch them out without ripping the pieces, although it takes a bit of care.  The pieces fit together well, even the facial expressions.  Caitlin Kuhwald's art captures the recognizable faces well.

We all know Hillary wants to tell Scott Walker to Faulkner himself.  Sticker courtesy of #ShutDownNouvella.
The HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON PRESIDENTIAL PLAYSET is cleverly designed and a great gift for anyone in your life who isn't afraid of having a little fun with politics.  Better yet, you can buy it for youself.  You know you love paper dolls too.

Bonus round:  Paper doll Ruth Bader Ginsburg meets tattoo Ruth Bader Ginsburg on my Instagram.  I apologize for my inability to take photos with my left hand.

November 23, 2015

Review: Shadows of Sherwood

Shadows of Sherwood The first Robyn Hoodlum book
By Kekla Magoon
Available now from Bloomsbury
Review copy

I love the concept of a futuristic Robin Hood story, with many of the main roles being women instead of men.  Robyn Loxley is a girl living in the rich sector of Nott City when her parents are disappeared by the Sheriff (also female in this story).  She barely manages to escape, and has to figure out how to live life on the margins with the help of some others who have been managing: Laurel, Scarlet, and Key.

It's right up my alley, but SHADOWS OF SHERWOOD never quite gelled for me.  Robyn's parents apparently followed a moon lore, an old religion that seems like magic.  It's a good way to add a folklore tie to the story, but I felt like the dystopia and fantasy elements didn't mesh very neatly.  The moon lore mostly seemed like a way for convenient things to happen.

There's also use of villainous point of view, which I find is difficult to pull off well.  The Sheriff's passages give some hints about Governor Crown's dastardly deeds but otherwise add little to the story.  Since this is a Robin Hood retelling it is particularly egregious, because everyone knows where the story is going.  Even younger readers can be assumed to know at least one version of the story, if only the Disney movie.

I think the class conflicts were done well, which is important since they are a central part of the legend.  Robyn has been part of the upper class and is now learning how bad everyone else in the city had it.  Rescuing her parents is a top priority, but she's learning that innocent bystanders could get hurt in her activities against the Sheriff - which leads her to question how she can help.

SHADOWS OF SHERWOOD has some nice heist scenes and an appealing cast, but it left me cold.  I'm just not sure the biggest departures from the traditional story worked for me.  It felt like a separate story welded on that didn't quite fit.  Does Robin Hood need a prophecy?  No, not really.

November 19, 2015

Amazing Book Sales

Amazon currently has several books that I highly recommend on sale.  Click on the cover to go to the book's Amazon page.

CrossingThirteen Chairs I thought THIRTEEN CHAIRS, a short anthology, of ghost stories delivered a nice amount of creepiness, as noted in my review.

The InfiniteGates of Thread and Stone I don't think CROSSING ever made it onto anyone's radar, but I gave it a strong review because I thought it was an unexpectedly affecting book.

GATES OF THREAD AND STONE and THE INFINITE are the first two books in a fantasy series set in a labyrinth that I've really been enjoying.


STORM, SPARK, and SECRET are on sale. These are books one, two, and four in Brigid Kemmerer's Elementals series. That's more than half of the series on sale!

Ella Enchanted

 And of course I have to recommend Ella Enchanted! It was one of my favorite books growing up.

Some Kind of NormalSimon vs. the Homo Sapiens AgendaThere are also some books on sale that I haven't read -- but want to.

SIMON VS. THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA is a contemporary that came out this year to rave reviews.

 I reviewed BOYS LIKE YOU as part of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books' RITA Reader Challenge. I could see why it was nominated for an award. SOME KIND OF NORMAL is a companion novel and came out earlier this year.

November 17, 2015

Review: Kid Athletes: True Tales of Childhood from Sports Legends

Kid Athletes Part of the Kid Legends series
By David Stabler
Illustrated by Doogie Horner
Available now from Quirk Books
Review copy

The duo behind KID PRESIDENTS is back with KID ATHLETES.  One great thing about them moving into sports is that they can highlight a diverse range of inspirational people.  As great as the presidents are, only one of them isn't a white man.  The people chosen for KID ATHLETES range from reigning gymnastics Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas to sumo legend Jesse Kuhaulua (Takamiyama Daigoro).  There's a nice blend of current competitors and historical figures as well as a variety of sports represented.

The stories are kept short and simple.  I wasn't familiar with any of them, but I'm not a sports fan.  I found Jackie Robinson's childhood particularly interesting.  Each chapter ends with some career highlights, so I was sad that Billie Jean King's didn't mention the Battle of the Sexes.  Doogie Horner's sketch-like illustrations add a huge amount of appeal to KID ATHLETES.  They're very cute and give the book a personality beyond biography for kids.

I think KID ATHLETES would make a fantastic gift for any child interested in sports.  Not surprising, since Quirk Books has the books-that-make-great-gifts market cornered.  The biographies presents aren't particularly special, but the figures highlighted are truly interesting people and the presentation hits the sweet spot between bright and adorable.

I passed my copy onto my niece, who is in the second grade, because I thought she might enjoy it.  She's pretty athletic herself and does competitive dance.  She's been reading one biography a night and has one left to go.  When I took her out for breakfast this Sunday, she was excited to tell me how much she was enjoying the book.  She's also been reading parts of it out loud to my nephew, who is in Kindergarten and was MVP of his touch football team.  He likes it too!  There's definitely a range of appeal.

November 13, 2015

Review: A Thousand Nights

A Thousand NightsBy E.K. Johnston
Available now from Disney-Hyperion
Review copy

I've read two YA retellings of A Thousand and One Nights this year, and A THOUSAND NIGHTS is my favorite.  E.K. Johnston wowed me with The Story of Owen duology, and she continues to impress me here.  The tone and rhythm of this story aren't similar at all, but the control of them is.

Lo-Melkhiin has been marrying and killing his wives.  It has reached the tribes have instituted a policy that he has to rotate between them, to help keep one tribe from suffering too much.  When the heroine's tribe must offer a bride, she makes herself as beautiful as she can with flashy clothes and makeup.  For one day she outshines her sister and is picked instead.  In return, her sister starts worshiping her immediately until waiting for news of her death, that she has joined their ancestors.

That love between the sisters might be enough to save all of their people.

I liked the focus in A THOUSAND NIGHTS on women who are fed up and what they're doing about it.  Lo-Melkhiin has kept peace ever since he came back from the desert a changed man, but it is the women who pay the price.  The heroine and her sister are tired of that, and so are many other women living in fear of their lives.

The worldbuilding is also superb.  Johnston imparts the reader with a sense of how families are structured and how their religious traditions work.  We're shown the reasons the people would not rebel against a leader who slaughters so many of his people.  Then, there's the bits of strangeness around the edges.  There's a wig made out of a lion's mane made by Lo-Melkhiin for his mother.  There's a man compelled to make beautiful sculptures, even though it pains him.  There's a sense of the wrongness in the court beyond the deaths.

Then there is the battle of wits and wills between Lo-Melkhiin and his bride.  She may not fear as he wants her to, but that doesn't mean she isn't afraid.  There's wonderful interplay between them, as Lo-Melkhiin tries to find out why she can withstand him and she tries to figure out how she can solves the problem of Lo-Melkhiin before she's just another dead wife.

A THOUSAND NIGHTS is a story of terror and love in a desert that never was.  It's a book that kept me turning the pages, and I hope it will do the same for you.

November 10, 2015

Review: The League of Unexceptional Children

The League of Unexceptional Children First in a series
By Gitty Daneshvari
Available now from Little, Brown BFYR (Hachette)
Review copy

Gitty Daneshvari, author of the School of Fear series, is back with the first in a new series: THE LEAGUE OF UNEXCEPTIONAL CHILDREN.  While I love the premise, I think this will be the only book in this series I try.

THE LEAGUE OF UNEXCEPTIONAL CHILDREN posits that children who are unremarkable, forgettable, utterly average make the best spies.  Very few notice them in the first place, and no one remembers them.  (The book promptly deflates its own premise by having the children accompanied by an adult, because there are many places where unaccompanied twelve year olds are quite noticeable.)

The issue for me was that Daneshvari never convinced me that Shelly and Jonathan are completely average.  Shelley's wacky outfits are described in detail, as is her habit of just making up sayings and otherwise saying nutty stuff and trying to take it back.  She's funny, and quirky.  She has an easily recognizable schtick.  She's more Stargirl than Jane Doe.  Jonathan seems a bit more uninteresting on the surface, although surely a kid wearing khakis isn't an identifiable trait with the current school dress codes.  Daneshvari makes it clear that unexceptional kids are not losers, yet doesn't support it well with the text.  Most people (that is, the average) are at least kinda good at one thing.  Shelley and Jonathan seem to have no talents aside from being easily overlooked.

The plot centers around a kidnapped Vice President.  The current league members might be compromised, so Shelley and Jonathan are recruited.  They fail their training, but are sent out into the field anyway.  However, they aren't alone: they're teamed up with a pair of exceptionals from Britain.

I like the central message of THE LEAGUE OF UNEXCEPTIONAL CHILDREN: everyone has something to offer.  The book is lightly humorous.  Maybe I'm overthinking it, but I just don't think it hangs together.  I'll always love books about kid spies, but this one is a miss for me.

November 9, 2015

Movie Monday: Final Girl

Final Girl Final Girl (not to be confused with The Final Girls) is a stylish horror movie with an increasingly common twist: the girl being chased by killers is highly skilled herself, and the hunters become the hunted.  It's hard to say where the movie goes wrong.

Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) shows off her Academy-nominated chops, moving smoothly from scared teenage girl to cold and ready fighter.  Wes Bentley (The Hunger Games) is terrific as her mentor.  Alexander Ludwig (The Hunger Games, The Final Girls) does a fine job as the leader of the teenage killers, even if he is several years to old for the part.  The other three killers manage to differentiate themselves neatly despite all being brunets in suits.  But Final Girl is just cold.

Final Girl is the directorial debut of Tyler Shields, a photographer.  His skill shows in every frame of the movie.  The composition of it is beautiful, especially the lighting.  It feels derivative, however.  The color scheme is mostly black, white, and red and there is a retro, fifties noir feel.  It's been done, and the fifties' feel adds nothing to the story.

The best scene is probably Danny (Logan Huffman) dancing with his axe, a fun scene that was done even better in Kung Fu Hustle.

The story of Final Girl is simple, and yet leaves so many questions.  How did Veronica and William know about these four?  How do others not, if twenty blonde girls have gone missing recently?  There's also the fact that Veronica is supposed to win her fights by being smarter, and yet the movie has her get into a fistfight with Jameson.  As hard as the movie tries, Ludwig is at least a foot taller than Breslin and quite muscular.  I'd love to see her win through wits as the movie promised; the fistfight is just ridiculous.

Final Girl looks lovely and boasts several good performances.  But the thin story doesn't have enough detail to support what is there because of the emphasis on style over substance.  There's no tension to the story, and the ideas have been executed better elsewhere.  This was a waste of the cast's talents.

November 6, 2015

Jeff Strand's Top Five Zombie Movies (+ Giveaway)

The Greatest Zombie Movie Ever Jeff Strand is gearing up for the release of THE GREATEST ZOMBIE MOVIE EVER on March 1st with a sneak peek of the book and a giveaway of an advanced copy, as well as a list of his top five zombie movies.

Jeff Strand’s Five Favorite Zombie Movies: 

My five favorite zombie movies are very similar to many other people’s five favorite zombie movies. I could’ve gone the condescending click-bait route and written about “The Five Best Zombie Movies You’ve Never Seen!” but, no, I’m going with my five real favorites….

#5: DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004 version). I was one of the many people bellowing, “You can’t remake DAWN OF THE DEAD! This is blasphemy! Blasphemy!!!” But somehow this remake to a sequel (but not a sequel to the remake) turned out to be awesome. Not quite as good as the original (SPOILER ALERT: That’s #3 on this list) but one of my all-time favorites.

#4: RE-ANIMATOR. I’ve now seen plenty of movies that are more over-the-top insane than RE-ANIMATOR, but this was the first movie where I simply couldn’t believe what I was watching. It was hard to believe that a movie so dark and gruesome could be so funny.

 #3: DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978 version). Shameful confession: When I first saw this in high school I thought it was stupid and boring. Fortunately, I matured and accepted that it’s one of the high points of zombie cinema. It’s the reason I know to duck before walking toward spinning helicopter blades.

#2: RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD. Fast zombies long before 28 DAYS LATER! The first time zombies ate brains! It doesn’t often get the credit it deserves, but this is one of the most influential zombie movies ever.

 #1: SHAUN OF THE DEAD. The greatest zombie comedy ever. The greatest zombie movie ever. The greatest MOVIE ever.


After producing three horror movies that went mostly ignored on YouTube, Justin and his filmmaking buddies decide it’s time they create something noteworthy, something epic. They’re going to film the Greatest Zombie Movie Ever. They may not have money or a script, but they have passion. And, after a rash text message, they also have the beautiful Alicia Howtz—Justin’s crush—as the lead.

With only one month to complete their movie, a script that can’t possibly get worse, and the hopes and dreams of Alicia on the line, Justin is feeling the pressure. Add to that a cast of uncooperative extras and incompetent production assistants, and Justin must face the sad, sad truth. He may actually be producing The Worst Zombie Movie Ever…


The vampire, whose fangs were too big for his mouth, turned to the camera and hissed.

November 5, 2015

Review: Chasing Secrets

Chasing Secrets By Gennifer Choldenko
Available now from Wendy Lamb Books (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

Newbery Honor-winning author Gennifer Choldenko, known for her Alcatraz trilogy, shifts her focus to Gilded Age San Francisco in CHASING SECRETS.  Heroine Lizzie Kennedy is a bright young girl interested in the work of her physician father.  When her family's cook Jing goes missing, Lizzie starts paying more attention to what is happening in her city.

I found the facts behind CHASING SECRETS fascinating and appreciated that Choldenko detailed the history and some resources in the back of the novel.  I had no idea that there had been a plague outbreak in modern America.  Choldenko is known for developing a rich historical setting, and she doesn't fall down on that front.  This turbulent time in American history is given its due.

As Lizzie starts digging deeper into San Francisco's secrets with the help of her brother and another friend, she's shocked by how many secrets different people are keeping and their motivation for them.  It starts with Noah, Jing's son, who Lizzie finds hiding on the Kennedy property after Jing's disappearance.  At first, she can't believe that Jing didn't trust her enough to tell her about Noah.  Then she starts to realize how the Chinese are being treated.  They are being quarantined in Chinatown, even though white residents are free to enter and leave that quarter - defeating the disease-prevention motive for the quarantine.  People are on the edge of rioting.

I liked that Lizzie didn't just listen to her family and others that told her nothing was wrong.  As a girl, she's used to people disavowing the medical knowledge she's learned at her father's side and other things she knows.  She loves her father and uncle, and trusts them, but she trusts her own curiosity and observations more.  She isn't content to just listen to what others tell her, but goes out and investigates.

There is a tragic aspect to the ending, which is fitting in a novel about an epidemic, although I'm not sure how I feel about it.  Overall though, I enjoyed CHASING SECRETS.  It is a compelling combination of medical thriller and historical fiction.  I often find historical fiction dry, but Lizzie's story is a juicy one.

November 3, 2015

Review: In Order To Live

In Order to Live A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom
By Yeonmi Park
With Maryanne Vollers
Available now from Penguin Press (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

I don't often read memoirs.  But when I heard about Yeonmi Park, I wanted to read her story.  She wrote IN ORDER TO LIVE: A NORTH KOREAN GIRL'S JOURNEY TO FREEDOM with Maryanne Vollers, an experienced journalist.  Vollers previously collaborated with such luminaries as presidential Hillary Clinton, and she helps tell Park's story with clarity and a sense of openness. 

Park was born and raised in North Korea along the Chinese border, a closeness that helped her father smuggle goods - until he got caught.  Park experienced both good times and bad times in North Korea before defecting. She escaped to China only to be trafficked with her mother.  Her sister Eunmi went missing when she crossed earlier.

Park's story is one of a family struggling to survive and come back together.  It is also one of illumination.  Very little is known about North Korea due to its isolation.  IN ORDER TO LIVE vividly describes everyday life, from food to traditions to fear of who might be listening to careless words.  Human trafficking is an issue that people like to ignore, sweep under the rug because it is ugly.  Park writes about how the crackdown in China during the Beijing Olympics affected her ability to live as someone without documentation, in fear of being sent back to North Korea. 

She writes about finally reaching South Korea, and the difficultly of making choices and overcoming childhood brainwashing, as well as the difficulties of trying to get an education after being denied it for so long.  She and many other North Koreans find themselves living a life they weren't prepared for, in a country that doesn't have resources for all of the refugees.

I think the subject matter of IN ORDER TO LIVE is fascinating, particularly since much of it isn't available outside of such primary sources.  It is definitely enough to make me overcome my reticence about reading memoirs.  I think Park's story is valuable, and understand why she is driven to share, despite the risk to herself and her family.


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