Here Lies the Librarian by Richard Peck

Here Lies the LibrarianBook Review:  Here Lies the Librarian by Richard Peck

A tornado sweeps through a small town in Hendricks County, Indiana and does more than just wreak havoc in Buelahland Cemetery.  Interest in its aftermath brings four library students from nearby Butler University on a roadtrip to see the damage.  The town will never be the same; nor will the lives of Peewee and Jake McGrath.

A couple of squeamish moments aside, this was a fun book.  I loved Peewee and Jake’s relationship — parentless from a young age, they share a deep bond and look out for one another.  Their house may not be the tidiest and their best meals may come from neighbors, but Jake does his best to look out for his younger sibling.  Together they run a small garage and try to fend off the ne’er-do-well Kirbys who run the town’s other, less reputable garage.

Having attended Butler University myself, although long after they discontinued their library science program, I was delighted when Irene Ridpath and her sorority sisters entered the scene. Daughters of wealthy men, whose fathers collectively purchase their librarian positions for them, their lives of privilege are a stark contrast to the McGraths’.  We get to know Irene the best.  While her background may be difficult to relate to, her kindness, generosity, and independence make her an incredibly likable character.  Highly intelligent, Irene is also quick enough with her responses to make a Gilmore Girl proud.  Set aside any librarian stereotypes — Irene is the quintessential librarian.

Set in 1914, today’s teens may find themselves hitting the dictionary for terms like chiffonier, but even without a dictionary, it’s an easy read.  The characters are quirky, the language is folksy, and the humor is laugh out loud. Car enthusiasts will appreciate Jake’s determination to build his own car, Peewee’s first driving lesson in a Stoddard-Dayton, and a detailed account of a ten-mile stock auto dirt-track race.  Highly recommended.

 

 

 

 

 

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Upside Down Magic by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins

Book Review:  Upside Down Magic by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily JenkinsUpside Down Magic

Nory has a strong talent for transforming into animals but can’t limit herself to one species at a time; instead of turning into a kitten, she’s likely to turn into a dritten (dragon/kitten) or a bitten (beaver/kitten).  She thinks that’s bad but Bax can’t manage transforming into animals at all; he transforms into stone.  And instead of charming animals, like other Fuzzies, Pepper terrifies them.  Together with Andres, Elliot, Sebastian, Marigold, and Willa,they are the first students in Dunwiddle Magic School’s class for Upside Down Magic.  Unlike many other educators, including Nory’s own father, Miss Star insists that unusual magical abilities are nothing to be ashamed of and encourages her students to embrace their unique talents.

My 8 year-old and I love this book!!!  It’s perfect for kids who are grappling with the pressure to be like everyone else, who are struggling with feeling like they are the only ones who can’t quite get it right, or who worry that they are disappointing their loved ones.  My daughter recently suggested that she and I have our own book club and this was an excellent choice for our first title!  The story is fun but it also lends itself well to talking about real issues kids find themselves facing, often with a great deal of uncertainty.  Click here for discussion and activity ideas.

Looking forward to Sticks and Stones, coming out the end of May!!!

P.S.  I believe that I would test well as a Fuzzy — I’ve always been good with animals.  Miss D wants to be a Flare so that she can make smores, you know, whenever.

 

 

 

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The Cracked Spine by Paige Shelton

Cracked Spine

Book Review:  The Cracked Spine by Paige Shelton

Wanted: A bold adventurer who wants to travel the world from a comfortable and safe spot behind a desk that has seen the likes of kings and queens, paupers and princes. A humble book and rare manuscript shop seeks a keenly intelligent investigator to assist us in our search for things thought lost, and in our quest to return lost items to their rightful owners.

Delaney moves to Edinburgh, Scotland for a job at a bookshop.  The shop is eclectic, as are the people who work there.  Something is amiss though.  It’s obvious that the staff of the Cracked Spine have a close relationship with one another and it’s also obvious that there is currently some strife among them.  The strife revolves around the owner’s sister — who turns up dead soon after Delaney’s arrival and the object placed in her care, missing.

The premise was interesting, as were the characters, but the storyline needed much more attention.  The mystery was disappointing and everything fell into place much too easily.  Spoilers ahead.

We’ll start with the easiness because that’s what annoyed me most.  Delaney sends an email in response to a Help Wanted Ad, receives a phone call minutes later, nails the conversation, and is immediately offered a job in Scotland.  O-kay.  Edwin MacAlister apparently isn’t concerned with checking references and Delaney’s apparently not concerned about verifying anything either because she accepts without really knowing what her responsibilities will be, or checking out the business ahead of time, but okay.  Upon arrival in Edinburgh, her cabbie takes an immediate liking to her and offers to have her over for dinner with him and the missus.  Less of a stretch — she’s young and on her own in a new country, so I can see an older person wanting to look out for her. But back to Edwin, her new employer — he immediately shares information with her that he dares not share with his other employees even though he’s known them for years and they are like family to him. What???  And the cabbie?  Wouldn’t you know it, he and the missus just happen to have a lovely cottage available for rent and they have been holding it for just the right person.  Really???  And the gorgeous pub owner who refuses to settle down gets all quivery at the sight of her???  And the guy who has all the answers, takes an immediate liking to her and decides to step in to save her when he wouldn’t save someone who had been his friend for years???  AARGH.  It’s like reading someone’s secret fantasy about their life.

Onto to the mystery.  I don’t mind not being able to figure out who did what, in fact, I’m always impressed when the clues are so subtle that I don’t recognize them as clues.  Subtle or not though, clues need to be there if the mystery is fairly written.  Aside of plenty of discussion of Jenny’s struggles with addictions and the shadiness of her apartment building, there was nothing that made me think “Of course!  I see it now!”.  It was more like, “Oh, okay.”  It made sense — there just wasn’t anything a reader could grab onto ahead of time to lead them to the culprit.

Other complaints.  Shelton tantalizes us with Delainey’s ability to communicate with books but never makes it believable.  Shelton also tantalizes us with the possibility of ghostly encounters but aside of a quick “something”, she leaves this unexplored.  And there’s all the comments about the unusualness of the bookshop’s interior vs exterior that go nowhere.

Disappointing.

 

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Hard Truth by Nevada Barr

Hard TruthBook Review:  Hard Truth by Nevada Barr

Just days after marrying Sheriff Paul Davidson, Anna Pigeon moves to Colorado to assume her new post as district ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park. When two of three children who’d gone missing from a religious retreat reappear, Anna’s investigation brings her face-to-face with a paranoid sect–and with a villain so evil, he’ll make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. Book description from Amazon.

Horrible, gut-wrenching stuff happens to kids in this story and that made this a tough read for me.  Still an incredible book though!  Anna is one of those characters who just resonates with me.  I can relate to her love of nature, her love of animals,  and her love for the parks system.  I can also relate to her feelings about God, especially in this book.  And then there’s the fact that although she’s non-religious, she fell in love with and married a religious man — I can relate to that as well.

This chapter in the Anna Pigeon series gives us another strong character to connect with — Heath Jarrod.  A mountaineer recently confined to a wheelchair, Heath is angry with her new circumstances.  She feels helpless, isolated, and lost.  When she finds two terrified, malnourished, and barely-clothed little girls near her camp, her life changes again.  She wants nothing more than to protect them and she will not allow her physical limitations to prevent her from doing so.  Love Heath!

But back to the horrible, gut-wrenching stuff — the story revolves around it.  There’s a religious cult on the outskirts of the park — they believe in little but prayer and their leader.  Even those who have lost faith in the leader are more terrified of the government than they are of him.  And somewhere nearby, within or without the cult, is the person responsible for the two girls Heath found — and the girl still missing.  The girls are so traumatized by the experience, or terrified that they still are not safe, that they will not identify who held them.  They have good reason for their fears.  The person who held them is a psychopath who takes pleasure in degrading and dehumanizing others and bending them to his will.  His ability to appear normal allows him to escape suspicion.  The clues are there but with a more obvious suspect in the area, and other odd events happening, Anna does not make the connection until she unwittingly places herself in a precarious position.  Nearly 1/3 of the book focuses on each harrowing detail of her attempt to escape him.

Hard Truth has a dark, disturbing storyline and it’s not for everyone.  There are optimistic moments (and wolf pups), but it’s still a difficult read.  Make sure you allow time to immerse yourself in something pure and light afterwards — something that will renew your faith in the world.  You’ll need it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Elfstones of Shannara

Elfstones of ShannaraBook Review:  The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks

Although it was considered among the highest of honors, Amberle never wanted to become one of the Ellcrys’ Chosen.  But it happened — during the annual ceremony in which all elves of age were presented for consideration, the Ellcrys selected Amberle and six of her peers.  Amberle accepted the responsibility and was even touched that the Ellcrys sought to speak to her often.  At first.  But the conversations began to frighten her — she began to feel as if the Ellcrys was trying to erase her sense of self and replace it with something else.  She abandoned her responsibility, her family, and her city, knowing that to do so would make her an outcast for all time.  And so it would have, had something not murdered the remaining Chosen.  The only one left, Amberle is the one person who can save the dying tree — and she must, because the Ellcrys is the only source of magic strong enough to hold the boundaries of The Forbidding — and The Forbidding is the only thing which protects the Four Lands from the legions of malicious creatures anxious to tear it to shreds.

Wil Ohmsford was given a set of elfstones by his grandfather and is the only person who may be able to wield their power.  May be able to — he’s only part elf.  The stones he carries are Seeking Stones.  It has been centuries since the Ellcrys was first called into being and even the Druid Histories can’t reveal precisely where Amberle needs to go to call upon the magic that created the tree.  Amberle needs Wil’s help if she is to find Safehold, the location of the Bloodfire, the one place that can imbue the seed of the Ellcrys with the magic needed to allow her to be reborn.  Magic calls magic, however.  Every time Wil uses the stones, the creatures that stalk them draw closer.

Elfstones may be Terry Brooks at his best.  The writing is lovely, the characters interesting, and the world is one that begs to recreated on screen (but not by MTV).  While I hate the convenient rules of magic that force people into being heroes (Why can’t Wil just give the elfstones to someone like Crispin? Why can’t the Ellcrys just choose someone else?  Why did they plant the Ellcrys so far away from Safehold to begin with?), I can go along with it.  Those are just details — it’s the unfolding of the story that kept me turning the pages, not only the first time I read it 30+ years ago, but also on a recent weekend.  At his best, Brooks creates characters you care about.  Wil and Amberle are strong-willed characters thrown together on a quest neither of them wants.  They are not selfish characters — Wil wants nothing more than to be a healer and Amberle wants to share her knowledge with the peoples of the Four Lands.  Both are characters who believe in the greater good; their reluctance to take on this quest stems from thinking there must be a mistake — there must be someone better qualified to see the task through.  Their struggles with their own self-doubts and with each other are easy to empathize with.  The bumpy growth of their relationship is believable.

Brooks also writes scenery incredibly well.  He’s capable of creating places you wish existed and places you hope to not encounter in your nightmares.  Arborlan, Paranor, Storlock . . . Wilderun, Grimpen Ward, Safehold.  Are there similarities to Middle Earth?  Sure, but the Four Lands have their own appeal.  I discovered Terry Brooks’ Shannara series long before I discovered Tolkien.  None of my friends or family read fantasy and I found most of my books simply by browsing the bookshelves at the library and the bookstore.  I remember spotting The Sword of Shannara, cover faced out, at a bookstore in the mall.  I read the description and that was that.  I left the bookstore with my first Shannara adventure — today, I own copies of most of them and Elfstones is probably my favorite.  After giving MTVs adaptation of this book a try (you can read my review of that here), I spent a weekend revisiting this beautifully written epic fantasy.

 

 

 

 

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The Witch’s Daughter by Paula Brackston

witch's daughterBook Review: The Witch’s Daughter by Paula Brackston

Bess’s story begins in the 1600s.  She’s always had a talent for magic, delighting her younger sister with the ability to manipulate candle flames, and other small tricks.  While Bess chafes at the restricted role a girl of her social standing is supposed to accept without question, she demonstrates a keen interest in her mother’s stock of herbal remedies.

When the plague devastates her town, grieving survivors want someone to blame.  Women who were once highly sought as healers, are now accused of witchcraft, including Bess’s mother.  Bess goes to Gideon Masters for protection and he saves her from one fate but condemns her to another.  He turns her into a witch, and an immortal one at that.  Recognizing Gideon for the wicked man he is, she spends the next few centuries trying to elude him.  It’s a lonely life — she doesn’t allow herself to form close relationships.  There have been a couple of lapses over the years which have ended in heartbreak, but when a young girl shows up at the edge of her garden, a girl who reminds her of her sister, Bess gives in one last time to the need for companionship.  To protect Tegan, Bess determines a way to deal with Gideon once and for all.

This book both enthralled and exasperated me.  The rich context for each chapter in Bess’s long life was mostly easy to fall into.  Mostly.  There were details that bugged me and took me out of the story.  Spoilers follow.

I wanted Bess’s mom to try harder to deflect the accusations thrown her way but I can accept that she felt there was no point.  However, the “watch and observe” scene did not work for me at all. Even if I believed that Anne had embraced the dark side of magic (and that would have required storytelling that wasn’t present), there was nothing to indicate that she would be so incompetent or foolish as to allow her familiars to betray her in such an obvious way.  There was also nothing in her character that would allow me to believe that she would not protect her friend.  If I stretch, I can consider that maybe, just maybe, her mysterious, magically-binding promise to Gideon was that when the time came and she was accused of witchcraft, she not deny it or any manifestations that proved her guilt.  Even with that stretch, however, I still can’t reconcile myself to Anne’s utter complacency in the face of her friend’s terror and shared condemnation.

The horror of this period of history is that women were so easily tried and found guilty of witchcraft.  Since the scene with the familiars does not seem consistent with Anne’s storyline, I don’t know why it’s there.  It certainly wasn’t needed to condemn Anne — I was convinced that she would be found guilty, whether anything showed up that evening or not.  It didn’t serve to warn Bess away from Gideon.  It didn’t even serve to make me, the reader, more apprehensive about Gideon — it was always clear that he was evil with a capital E.  It seemed gratuitous and because it didn’t add to the story, I felt like it lessened the story.

The relationship between Gideon and Bess bothered me as well.  She knows that he’s a bad man — she knew that before he exacted a deal from her mother, and since the scene with the familiars is in the story, that scene makes it even more implausible that she would go to him, much less make a blind promise to him. Her circumstances are not her mother’s.   She’s a smart girl, and she’s not yet been accused of witchcraft. Given Bess’s pluck, I expected her to set out on her own.  Yes, she promised her mom that she would go to Gideon for help but people break promises all of the time, especially when those promises are made under duress — I don’t buy into the ‘I promised, therefore I have to do it’ storyline.

Those were my biggest problems with the story.  Minor grievances include the fact that Bess says she changes her name constantly but in each time period she shares with us, she uses some variation of her first name but always uses the same last name.  Really?  Seems like the last name would be the giveaway.  And despite the fact that Gideon has pursued her over the centuries, she only picks up on his super-evil vibe part of the time?  He’s even gotten close enough for her to fall in love with him, and yet she falls for yet another man who knows much more about her than he should.  It’s hard to reconcile her being super-sharp one moment, and not-so-sharp the next.  Her other relationships were believable but not her romances.

I would have liked at least one more glimpse into her past, a glimpse of her coming to terms with her transformation.  She alludes to learning from different witches over the years — it would have been interesting to have witnessed at least one of those periods of her life.  She knew very little of witchcraft when she was transformed and what she did know was purely dark.  We missed an integral part of her story when we jumped straight from her transformation to a point in time when she has already accepted what she is and has a solid knowledge of good magic.

The Witch’s Daughter offers an intriguing premise, well-chosen historical contexts, and a compelling main character.  Despite its flaws, it’s a page-turner — even at my most aggravated, I could not set it aside.  More attention to crafting the interactions between Bess and Gideon was needed.  Too often, each of them made choices that seemed more convenient for moving the story along than consistent with their characters.  Still a very good read though!

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Planetfall by Emma Newman

PlanetfallBook Review:  Planetfall by Emma Newman

“Someone’s coming toward the colony.  From outside.”

Lee Suh-Mi felt called to establish a colony on a world far beyond Earth and 1,000 people felt called to join her.  Something happened when they arrived at the planet in Suh-Mi’s vision however, and a couple of decades later, Ren is still haunted by it.  She and Mack are the only two who know the truth; whatever happened was considered so potentially devastating that the other members of the original landing team were murdered to prevent them from telling the other colonists.  Or were intended to be murdered.  When Suh-Mi’s  twenty-something grandson approaches the colony, it’s clear that at least some members of the team managed to survive.  What’s not immediately clear is what Sung-Soo knows.

Sung-Soo’s close resemblance to Suh threatens Ren’s ability to continue playing along with Mack’s carefully constructed tale.  Told from Ren’s perspective, hints at what happened are slowly revealed, as she reflects back to the beginning of her relationship with Suh, what she left behind back on Earth, and the events of that first Planetfall.

There’s a lot to love about this story.  To begin with, it’s beautifully written and stunningly subtle.  Set in the future, it features advanced technology including 3D printers capable of printing everything a self-sustaining colony requires, and chip implants capable of connecting individuals to the web and to each other.  It also features an environmentally-friendly, successful colony established on an Earth-like planet.  it’s not a utopia — while there are advantages to being as connected as they are, the story points out that there are disadvantages as well.  And people will always be people.  Add a mysterious alien structure,  a slow reveal from a character slowly cracking under the burden of guilt, and a twist I didn’t see coming, and you have a story worth reading again and again.

The question of religion versus science underlies the story but the reader isn’t pushed one way or the other.

I was exasperated by Ren but that’s not a bad thing.  Tormented by whatever happened, she can’t face it directly, but the arrival of Sung-Soo won’t let her continue to bury it.  Hence the slow reveal.  I like having to work for my mystery so I was hooked even though I was never able to connect with her.   I didn’t pick up on her illness right away and when Sung-Soo discovered it, I knew it was important but I didn’t realize how important it was — I was mostly stuck on not understanding the illness itself.

I love it when an author can genuinely catch me off-guard and Newman did just that when the book hit its climax.  The clues were there — I just didn’t pick up on them.  Stunningly subtle.  Reading the book through a second time, I couldn’t believe that I’d missed what was so obvious.

I did have a few quibbles with the book but they were minor.  There was a detail that seemed like it would be bigger than it was — ah well.  In addition to Planetfall, there was another “event” that was mentioned but never really fleshed out.  And for all of the description provided, there wasn’t any about the local wildlife — it’s mentioned on a few occasions, so you know it exists, but that’s it.  I want to know what’s roaming the grasslands and why nothing ventures close to God’s City.

The first time I read the book, I thought the ending felt rushed.  The second time, I appreciated it more.  I would love to see a sequel.

 

 

 

 

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