Thursday, May 27, 2010

The God of the Hive by Laurie R. King

The God of the Hive is the tenth Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes mystery, and if you haven't read them stop whatever you're doing and go buy The Beekeeper's Apprentice (the first in the series) right now. This is the series I usually recommend when friends ask me for some interesting light reading, and I've converted quite a few people into fans.

The God of the Hive is the second part of the story that began in The Language of Bees, and ended in a cliffhanger. Personally, I prefer a single story to be contained within a single book in the mystery genre, although The Language of Bees and The God of the Hive do have two separate villains, so I'll let that point go. But they are not, strictly speaking, standalone novels. And this far along in the series, I guess they don't have to be.

I enjoy the Mary Russell books for several reasons: the edgy characters, the intelligent dialogue, the locations, the humor, and the fact that they're set in my absolutely favorite historical period, the "long weekend" between World War I and World War II. The pace is energetic, and given the age of some of the characters, they must be quite exhausted. King has succeeded in making me more interested in Sherlock Holmes than Arthur Conan Doyle ever did, which is saying something (probably something heretical from a Holmsian purist's viewpoint).

To review the plot would be to introduce spoilers (OK, I'm lazy, and book reviews that contain book synopses bore me), so let me just recommend the whole series to you and be done with it. It's elevated mystery writing in the tradition of Dorothy L. Sayers, and consistently enjoyable.

The Secret by Rhonda Byrne

Oh dear, yet again I have fallen prey to my rule that if I begin to spout opinions about a book on the basis of what other people have said, I have to read it. It's a very inconvenient rule, but I believe it's intellectually dishonest to do otherwise; hence, The Secret. And now I have to think very hard about how to phrase this review without actually saying "steaming pile of New Age BS." Oops.

The Secret says this: if you think positive thoughts, positive things will be attracted to you from the Universe. If you think negative thoughts, you--frequently known as You--will attract negative things. And--get this--it says it over and over again, for 184 pages. I waited in vain for a deep thought, but all I got was this:

You are God in a physical body. You are Spirit in the flesh. You are Eternal Life expressing itself as You. You are a cosmic being. You are all power. You are all wisdom. You are all intelligence. You are perfection. You are magnificence. You are the creator, and you are creating the creation of You on this planet.

Gosh, I feel so powerful and... validated. The Secret is larded with quotes from a variety of gurus, or as Byrne would say, "teachers and avatars." Because they are never just one thing. The Secret is, above all, a wonderful example of how never to use one word when two will do just fine.

I could go on and on... probably for 184 pages. But the sum total of this book is "think positive." I have nothing against positive thinking; I'm a glass-half-full person myself, and it serves me well. But elevating positive thinking into a Great Secret of the Universe, without giving the reader any clue as to what to do next (other than watch The Secret DVD, which is plugged several times, and no doubt buy all the other The Secret merchandise) is snake oil, dear friends, and nothing more.

That, of course, is just the opinion of this humble blogger, and you are free to differ. The only thing that got me seriously worried was the idea that if you want to be rich, you should act like you're already rich. Isn't that why we have a debt crisis? Otherwise, read it and enjoy. Maybe it will make you wealthy, healthy and eternally young (it promises all those things; I should make a note to check on how Byrne looks when she's 70). OK, I'll stop now.

Monday, May 24, 2010


What has pirates, a faceless man, an Extremely Ginormous Octopus, musical numbers that include "jazz hands", a cat named Giggles, a talking refrigerator, and a bunch of old ladies bent on revenge? Why, Alex and the Ironic Gentleman, of course.

(Of course.)

And that doesn't even scratch the surface. This book is a lovely rollercoaster ride. It runs at a fast pace and bounces you from one thing to the next so quickly, you might just want to buckle your seatbelt.

Alex is a sixth-grade girl who doesn't mind that everyone--especially adults--mistake her for a boy. Because she has a bowl haircut. And her name is Alex. It's understandable.

However, she does mind that the only adult she seems to get along with, aside from her uncle who raised her, has been kidnapped by pirates. Say it ain't so! She then takes it upon herself to rescue him, and so the story begins. And once you've started, you won't want to stop.

This book was an absolute delight to read, and highly recommended for the age group it targets (9-12), and then some. My six year-old thought it was great, but I had to read it to him (it is a bit word heavy for early readers).

For more about this book and this author:

Adrienne Kress - website
Alex and the Ironic Gentleman
Timothy and the Dragon's Gate


Sunday, May 23, 2010

HEIST SOCIETY by Ally Carter

The premise of this book had me really excited. The best way I can describe it would be Indiana Jones meets Mission Impossible... with teenagers. Did you just get goosebumps? I certainly did.

I was reading at a good clip through the first half, maybe even the first two-thirds, until things started bugging me. They became a little too contrived, a little too perfect, a little (no, a lot) too unbelievable.

And then the ending let me down.

Don't get me wrong. It's a good story. I just don't feel the author gave it the justice it deserved. It could have been much, much better, in my opinion.

And now, because of that, I'm writing my first bad review here. I usually don't finish books that I don't like, which then prevents me from posting a review (gotta follow the rules). Once I hit a certain point, though, I commit myself to finishing the book. Usually, it's to see if it will redeem itself, because, well, the beginning was so good, maybe it was just a bad patch from, say, page 200-220, and the last 50 or so pages will blow me away.

No. They didn't. There was actually one point where I had to re-read it three times... not because I didn't understand what I'd read, but because I seriously could not believe that that's what had happened in the story. "Contrived" and "unrealistic" do not even begin to describe it. The final third of this book felt, to me, like it was rushed. It really didn't live up to the rest of the book.

All that being said, Ally Carter is a best-selling author, and that's nothing to sneeze at. This is not her first book, she's a good writer, and Heist Society already had a movie deal before the book was released. I can understand that. The book reads like a movie, to be honest, but that was also one of the problems I had with it. Almost as if she wrote a screenplay first, then wrote the book based on the screenplay. It just didn't have that book feel to it, if you know what I mean.

(Not surprisingly, you'll notice in the linked article above that the main characters' ages will be increased to their early 20's for the film version. One of the main things that had bugged me about this story was trying to believe that a bunch of 15 and 16 year-olds could realistically pull off this major heist. I don't care how rich they are or how many connections they had or how long they'd been thieving... I just didn't buy it.)

So my final word on this is, when the movie comes out, go see it. I'm sure the movie will rock because there are some really cool scenes in here that lend themselves to the awesomeness of film. But in book form it was only so-so for me.

~Lydia Sharp

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

I Am Hutterite by Mary-Ann Kirkby

I came across this book because it was reviewed by author Michelle Van Loon on her blog. Michelle is a friend, so I immediately asked to borrow her copy (yes, I'm cheap. Deal with it.)

Communities that distance themselves from the "world" mesmerize me. I love stories of separateness, so I was primed to enjoy this one. I'd heard of the Amish and the Mennonites, of course, but the Hutterites were new to me. I Am Hutterite is told from the perspective of a woman born into a Hutterite community in Canada, whose family leaves the community to make their way in the "English" world when she is ten.

The first half of the story deals with the background of Kirkby's parents and the colonies they belong to, and Kirkby's childhood growing up in a rural colony where all goods are held in common, gender roles and stages of life are carefully defined, and daily tasks and dining are done in a carefully organized communal setting. Ayn Rand's Anthem was on the edge of my mind as I read this account, and I could see how this way of living could have been frustrating for some of the adults. The reason why Kirkby's parents leave the colony are foreshadowed as they are seen struggling with the domination of the colony by one man, who happens to be Kirkby's uncle.

For Kirkby, however, the colony is an idyllic place where food is plentiful, children are given a firm framework of moral guidance but much love, and friends are always on hand to play outside in the sunshine (it never seems to be winter). The account is sprinkled liberally with Hutterisch, the Austrian dialect that is the colonists' first language. For some this could make the book hard to read, although a glossary is provided at the end of the book; I acquired enough German at school to make it interesting rather than offputting.

The family's new life in the "English" world of the 1970s (where there is plenty of winter) occupies the second half of the book, and here the interest comes from the story of a young girl trying to gain acceptance from a world she doesn't understand, hampered by the extreme poverty of a family who have to begin life again in an abandoned farmhouse with almost no possessions. Longing desperately for her Hutterite colony, Kirkby stands on the edges of English society looking in on fashions her parents won't let her adopt, and social rules that often run counter to everything she's been taught.

Kirkby's love of her Hutterite people and their ways is evident throughout this book; although she never returns to the colony, she does not lose contact with her friends and relatives. The dignity, humility, and hard work of her parents is lovingly portrayed.

I realize that Kirkby's rose-colored nostalgia has to be taken into account when assessing I Am Hutterite, but it makes no claims to be an objective account of the Hutterite way of life. Seen as a memoir of a woman's journey from one world to another, it makes fascinating reading. I found it to be quite a page-turner, and felt as if I gained a better understanding of what makes the Hutterites tick. Recommended.

WINTERSMITH/ Terry Pratchett

WINTERSMITH is the 3rd Tiffany Aching novel and the 35th Discworld novel. (35!!! What is Terry Pratchett on, and where can I get some?)

Tiffany Aching jumps into the dark Morris Dance, which welcomes in winter, and finds herself dancing with the Wintersmith. He mistakes her for the Summer Lady, and falls in love. He makes her ice roses and icebergs and tries to convince her to marry him. That's all well and good, except the Summer Lady has lost her powers and the world might never see the end of winter. The lambs are dying, sailors are being shipwrecked, people are starving. Tiffany has to do something, and fast!

This was my first time reading a Terry Pratchett novel and I loved it. While Tiffany Aching is only 13, she's practically an adult in her world. She's in training to be a witch, and finds that she must use her witchcraft and her boffo- the magic of expectations- to defeat the Wintersmith and save the world.

Interspersed throughout the novel are the Nac Mac Feegles, or the Wee Free Men. They believe that this world is heaven and that they've already died. When they die, they believe that they return to whichever world they were in previously. The Feegles are hilarious. It took me a moment to get into their Scottish accents, but once I did, the laughter started and didn't stop. With their well-intentioned brawling, the Feegles are reminiscient of a pack of Gremlins- pretransformation.

Pratchett's writing was engaging and very humorous at times. Some of my favorite lines:

"Feegles on the Chalk tend to rely on the fact that you can only get so much dirt on you before it starts to fall off of it's own accord."
(I wish I knew this as a kid! )

"Look, just because a woman's got no teeth, doesn't mean she's wise. It might just mean she's been stupid for a very long time."
(A bit of wisdom I'll be takign with me from now on!)

Wintersmith was a very pleasant read, and made me want to seek out the other 36 novels in the series.

Monday, May 17, 2010


Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You
Peter Cameron
Young Adult
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (2007)
229 pages

This could quite possibly be the shortest review ever: READ. THIS. BOOK.

But I'll take it a bit further. I have honestly never read a book before this one that made me laugh so hard and also want to cry, and sometimes those reactions were within a mere page of each other.

James Sveck isn't your typical 18 year-old guy. He may seem so on the outside, but once you get into his head, it doesn't take long to see the difference. I was instantly enamored with this character. Instantly. (Go ahead, snap your fingers. It was quicker than that.)

We start out by meeting his dysfunctional family. And I can hear you groaning, "Oh, every teenager in a YA novel has a dysfunctional family, how lame," but no, seriously, James' family is beyond messed up. But even so, they have this unexplainable endearing quality to them that makes you want to care.

The main plot point is that James isn't sure about going to college. He'd rather spend the tuition money on things of greater importance and lasting value, like buying a house in the Midwest and living alone. That's what he wants to be. Alone. Away from the hubbub of the city.

Or so he thinks.

Once we (the readers) kind of understand the inner workings of James' mind and his current situation, we're then led to an incident that happened a few months prior, which then led James into psycho-therapy, which then, although it doesn't seem like it at first, leads him into making some proactive decisions.

And then of course, effing everything up, as 18 y/o messed up dudes have a tendency to do.

I've added this book to my list of "must reads for teens" as it deals with some heavy issues and would expose them to a culture/way of thinking that they might not otherwise encounter. Depression, suicide, homosexuality, divorced parents, insecurities about the future, post-traumatic stress, social expectations, death... all of those are touched on in this book.

Also, the dog is cool. You'll like the dog.

~Lydia Sharp

A BIG THANK YOU to this great lady for recommending this literary delight!

This book was previously reviewed by Book Book reviewer Kristin Dodge on February 20, 2009. Click here to read that review.

And because I loved this book so much, I was blogging about it before I'd even finished reading it. Click here to read a few more of my thoughts, if you so desire.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Stuff Christians Like by Jonathan Acuff

Full disclosure: I pre-ordered Stuff Christians Like on Amazon in order to be entered in a drawing for an iPad. Well, the iPad was about 3 days old and that point, and still looked very sexy. Would I have bought the book anyway? Maybe. I do follow Acuff's Stuff Christian's Like blog, ever since I came across a post about how you can make your tweets 14% holier by mentioning a Christian writer, and that C.S. Lewis was the most useful as his name takes up the fewest characters.

That's a taste of what you'll get in this book, which is a 204-page adaptation of the blog's most popular posts. Acuff has a keen eye for the way the faithful behave in and out of church, and each little segment targets a different issue such as raising your hands in worship or that race to see who can get to the Bible verse quickest when the pastor says "Please turn to..."

By "church", we are talking about the modern American evangelical kind of church. In fact, I keep getting a nasty feeling that Acuff goes to my church, and will still be looking over my shoulder on Sunday even though I've checked on his geographical location. I will definitely be checking on who's rocking the Ninja worship position, who prefers the double high five, and trying to guess the exact keyword that triggers that soft guitar music during prayer. And I will never use the word "just" when praying, ever ever again.

There's some serious stuff in there too, and I did go "ouch" a few times because, let's face it, we all talk the talk while simultaneously trying to get out of the full implications of walking the walk. Quite a few of those little hypocrisies are laid bare in Stuff Christians Like--claiming, for example, that you're only watching Family Guy because you need to be culturally relevant, saying "I'll pray for you" to someone when you fully intend to forget all about their issues five minutes from now, or making sure everyone knows you've been on a mission trip or two by ostentatiously displaying African masks in your home or wearing those really cool Indian suits to church (I totally want to do a mission trip to India to get me one of those.)

It's an insider book, really; I don't see it appealing much to a non-Christian because the point is that we're laughing at ourselves for being human jerks, and at the same time forgiving ourselves because, hey, we're all the same, and what's more the Bible is full of humans being complete idiots. Jon Acuff is the kid who told everyone that the Emperor had no clothes on, and I hope he'll keep doing it and not become too conceited about the adulation from his blog's many fans. Razzle dazzle, Jon.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Ellen Horan/31 BOND STREET

A fictionalized account of a sensational murder trial from the 1800's. Emma Cunningham is a young window whose precarious finances prompt her to rent rooms from a wealthy dentist and land speculator, Harvey Burdell. When Burdell is murdered in their home at 31 Bond Street, Emma becomes the prime suspect. Was Burdell murdered by the desperate widow who discovered he was taking advantage of what little money she had left? Or should the blame fall to one of the many businessmen Burdell swindled? What about his servant--and witness to his accumlating wealth-- who is now nowhere to be found?

The story races along, shifting between the developments of the trial and revelations about the events leading up to it. It kept me in suspense right up to the end--where I discovered that while the outcome of the trial is revealed, the truth about the murder never is. I found it disappointing not to receive a definitive--if fictional--answer to the story's main riddle: who killed Harvey Burdell? Still, the many surprising revelations and the illustrations of intriguing historical figures make this book worth reading.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Passing for Black/ LINDA VILLAROSA

"Everything Angela has come to believe about sex, love, identity and race is called into question as this explosive new passion blows her world wide open..."

From Back Cover.

When Angela Wright meets Dr. Caitlin Getty, she's immediately attracted to her. Angela struggles with her feelings. After all, her life is close to perfect. She's an associate editor at a magazine, and she's got one of the few good Black men left. (Her best friend, May, likes to point out there's a SHORTAGE.) Keith, her fiance is an African American Studies Professor. Her mother is a Christian and black (hair) power activist. They both believe that lesbianism is just not something Black people do.

I found Passing for Black an interesting read. I had never thought of how being Black affects being a Lesbian, a concept which Ms. Villarosa examines thoroughly. We go through Angela's struggles as she goes back and forth in her mind, and it brings us to understand the agony that coming out can cause. For the person coming out and those around him or her.

The book also examined the concept of passing. First, passing for black. Within black society, there are differnt kinds of black. Your skin colour, hair type, language, favourite music, style, all define you as too black or not black enough. Secondly, passing for straight. Ms. Villarosa speaks about the vast number of lesbians who pretend to make those around them comfortable.

There were times that the journalistic background of the author (a former editor of both the New York Times and Essence) shone through and the book read a bit more like creative non-fiction. But all in all, PASSING FOR BLACK was educational and entertaining.

Click here for an interview with author, Linda Villarosa.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

ALONG FOR THE RIDE by Sarah Dessen

Along for the Ride
Sarah Dessen
Young Adult Romance
Viking, 2009
383 pages

Overall, this was a good book, and it came at just the right time for me. I've been running a bit dry lately in the "good reads" department, spending almost two months straight starting novels and not getting past the first 50-100 pages, for various reasons, but most of which boiled down to them not holding my interest or being just plain stupid.

I knew I'd finish Along for the Ride after I'd read only the first page. It just had that wow factor in the writing style and character voice. Also, I could relate to the MC dealing with divorced parents as she begins her transition from teenager to adult, and I'm sure that played a large role in my readerly sympathy.

Set in a beachside tourist town in North Carolina during the summer between high school graduation and freshman year at college, Along for the Ride has enough teenageisms to be considered classic young adult (such as the group of girls working at the MC's stepmother's boutique who always talk about fashion and boys and argue over what social event to engage in on any given night) and enough adultisms to be considered crossover (such as making up for a bland childhood with rare second chances and learning more about who you are through the viewpoint of a stranger). I enjoyed these aspects greatly.

Although the characters were all well-developed, even the minor ones, the story itself left a few things to be desired. I didn't have a clear sense of plot, even after finishing the whole book. Looking back, it felt more like a philosophical journey than a compilation of events, and every time it seemed we were building toward something big... it didn't happen. Either it was completely skipped or simply summarized, not giving it the credit it deserved. Many moments felt contrived with double meaning so the author could make a point, and some of those points were highlighted ad nauseam.

Auden was definitely a relatable character, but I felt her romantic counterpart, Eli, could have been a little less boring and predictable. There is something to be said for being stand-off-ish and taking certain things in stride, especially with the particular issues in his past that he was dealing with (namely, the death of his best friend), but I would have liked a little more dynamics from him, especially toward the end.

And I honestly can't pinpoint the climax of the story, which then left the ending feeling like a big letdown. Every last detail was tied up too nicely, making it seem unrealistic, but for the young adult audience, maybe that's what they want. As an adult, I guess I just know better: things don't always go the way you want them to in the end. It's a romance story, so I expected the HEA for that part of it, but not for all of the subplots as well. Just saying.

I guess the bottom line is, the second half of the book didn't live up to the first half, in my opinion. Even so, I would still recommend Along for the Ride for both teens and adults; I give it four stars out of five. It's lengthy for YA, but it reads quickly and smoothly. The average reader could realistically finish this in a weekend. If you're really busy or don't read very often, I'd say you could still complete it within a week. Despite its downfalls, it has a way of hooking you into late-night/early morning reading.

~Lydia Sharp

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

1959: The Year Everything Changed by Fred Kaplan

1959 was, I have learned, an important year. It marked the invention of the integrated circuit, the advent of the birth control pill, the beginning of jet air travel, the start of the race to the moon and the Vietnam War, and major breakthroughs in music, art and literature. It was a hinge point between the generation that had been through two global wars and a depression, for whom social good meant formal suits and dresses, conformity to the rules and "civilized" behavior, and a new generation of iconoclasts who wanted to rip apart conventions to expose what was underneath.

In a series of essays on a wide range of subjects, Kaplan's 1959: The Year Everything Changed explores the different breaking points where the old order started to crack and new ways of thinking began to poke through. Each chapter deals with one subject, explores the antecedents of the changes, and in some instances takes the reader forward into the 60s and 70s to show what happened next. This is very much an American story; although the action occasionally shifts abroad, the reader doesn't get much sense of what was happening in the rest of the world. It's a very personal, non-exhaustive short (244-page) history that doesn't engage (at least in the text; I didn't read the endnotes) with the work of historians of the era.

For all that, I enjoyed it. I was born in 1959 and was too young to appreciate much of the 1960s, but this book has given me some starting points from which to explore a decade that I'm starting to feel I need to understand. I was vaguely conscious of growing up in a time of important transitions, especially being in England where traces of World War II were still very much apparent, but by the time I reached the age of real awareness we were well into the 70s and the changes that Kaplan enumerates were pretty much taken for granted.

I'm not sure how much I would enjoy 1959 if I didn't have that sense of peripheral familiarity with the era. For anyone under 40, this time must fall squarely into the category of "history", and I don't think the reminiscence style of writing really works well there. I'd love to get the thoughts of younger Book Book contributors on this. For me, this is a book written by a Boomer for Boomers. But if you like popular history, it's well written and pacy. Worth a look.