Category: Book Reviews

Book Review 2.1 – The October Country – Book 14

What I read:

The October Country by Ray Bradbury

306 pages / Speculative fiction / 3 out 5 stars

How it starts and How it gets complicated: The October Country is a collection of short stories, so I can’t really describe a central plot, but I can give a little information about some of the stories I enjoyed the most. “The Dwarf” is about a dwarf who returns to a carnival fun-house every night after the crowds have gone home to view himself in a mirror that stretches his image so that he sees himself as a man of average stature. The plot thickens when the carny running the fun-house becomes jealous because of the interest one of his female coworkers has taken in the little man. “The Scythe” is about a man and his family who inherit a farm from a dead stranger. The new owner of the farm begins reaping farms great wheat field only to discover that each stalk of wheat represents a real living person, and he’s been cutting them down indiscriminately. So where is his family in that vast field of wheat? “The Small Assassin” is about a feeling with which all new parents are familiar–“Is this baby trying to kill me?” There are 19 stories in this collection in all that represent some of Ray Bradbury’s earliest published fiction.

What I liked: I always enjoy Ray Bradbury’s writing. I particularly enjoy his mid-century brand of speculative fiction. His stories are simple snapshots of different worlds or otherworldly situations rather than long, drawn-out descriptions of fully developed worlds, which I have never really been a fan of. I love Bradbury’s use of vocabulary. There are plenty of words I don’t already know, but Bradbury is able to write in a way that it is still easy to understand his meaning, even if I don’t know every word.

What I disliked: There were a few stories that I found a little goofy. “There Was an Old Woman” is about an old woman who refuses to die and goes so far as to demand her body back. The story itself was not so bad, but the old woman’s characterization and dialogue irritated me. There were a few other stories that didn’t really grab my attention. That’s why I gave this book a 3 star rating instead of a 4 or 5 star rating.

Recommendation: I would recommend this book to anyone who doesn’t have the patience to read a full novel. A collection of short stories is easy to read without having to stick with a single story for a long time.

Book Review 1.2 – The Sacrifice Box – Book 8

What I Read:

The Sacrifice Box by Martin Stewart

368 pages / Horror / 5 out of 5 stars

How It Starts: Sep (short for September) and his other eleven-year-old friends find an ancient stone box on the Scottish island where they live. They feel compelled, even though they don’t know why, to put “sacrifices” in the box, things that are important to them that will bind them together as friends. Once they make their sacrifices, they hold hands and repeat “the rules,” rules that came to Sep almost as if they were part of a dream: Never come back to the box alone. Never Open it after dark. Never take back your sacrifice.

How It Gets Complicated: Four years later, Sep’s group of friends has drifted apart. Sep feels isolated and friendless and dreams of leaving the island for the Scottish mainland to go to school when he is approached by members of his old group of friends asking for his help. Creepy, inexplicable things have been happening to all of them, things related to the items they sacrificed in the box. It’s not long before they figure it out: somebody broke the rules. But who? No one in the group will admit to it. And until they do, they won’t be able to stop the increasingly creepy–and deadly–things happening on the island.

What I Liked: I thought this book was really well-written. It wasn’t that it had the greatest plot; the plot was actually pretty weak at times, but I really liked the author’s word choice and the way he described the action in the book, especially when things got chaotic. Some YA fiction writers have a tendency to over-explain because they underestimate the ability of their readers to draw inferences and follow the action. I felt like Martin Stewart did a good job of laying out just the essential details and then letting the readers fill in the gaps. I also feel like this book required quite a bit of suspension of disbelief. There were a lot of ridiculous things going on, but I was happy to accept them because of the quality of the writing.

What I Disliked: I felt like the plot got sloppier the further in to the book I read. I don’t know if the author was late on his publication deadline or if he was just sick of writing, but it seemed like not nearly as much care went into the structure and writing of the second half as the first.

Recommendation: This book takes place in the ’80s and has a definite Stranger Things vibe, so fans of Stranger Things will probably enjoy it. It also is clearly ripping off the Stranger Things font for the title. You can also tell that this author really likes Stephen King and there are a lot of things that remind me of It and Pet Sematary. 

Book Review 1.1 – Grendel’s Guide to Love and War – Book 7

What I Read: 

Grendel’s Guide to Love and War by A.E. Kaplan

320 pages / Young Adult Fiction / 3 out 5 stars

How It Starts: Tom Grendel lives in a retirement community. His father moved the family there because he is a military vet living with PTSD and needs a quiet neighborhood. Tom mows all the old ladies’ lawns and is working on a project where he interviews the residents of the neighborhood and creates transcripts of their conversations. His best friend, Ed, wants to be a vintner, or wine maker.

How It Gets Complicated: When one of the old ladies next door suffers a stroke and has to move into assisted living, her niece and the niece’s children move in. One of the children is Willow Rothgar, a girl that Tom has known for several years and kind of has a thing for. Her brother is Rex Rothgar, who Tom also knows and by whom Tom has been beaten up several times. Things get hairy when Rex and Willow’s mom leaves town for an extended work obligation and Rex begins throwing epic parties in the back yard every night, triggering Tom’s dad’s PTSD. Tom is determined to put an end to the parties and sets off a prank war with Rex, who calls in his cousin, Wolf Gates, for backup.

What I Liked: This book is loosely based on the Old English poem Beowulf, about a monster, Grendel,  who disrupts the parties of a group of Vikings, who then call in a Viking warrior, Beowulf, to put an end to the monster’s party pooping. It was fun to read a YA book that followed the plot structure of the Old English poem I studied in college. I thought the author’s use of the poem was very clever and fun to read.

What I Disliked: A lot of the action in the book was unbelievable. I like a book that requires a little suspension of disbelief, but this book doesn’t quite earn it. There are a million simple solutions to the problems in the book that are waived off with overly simple explanations and never brought up again. For instance, why don’t they just call the police to shut down the parties? The excuses for this solution are never really satisfying and make it hard to buy-in to the rest of the book.

Recommendation: I think just about anyone could enjoy this book. Knowing the story of Beowulf is really helpful, but you can enjoy this book even if you’re not familiar with Beowulf.

 

Mosquitoland – Book 19 – Book Review 1.1

What I Read: 

Mosquitoland by David Arnold

342 pages / Young Adult Fiction / 3 out of 5 stars

How it Starts:

16-year-old Mary Iris Malone (Mim) has been struggling with adjusting to her parent’s recent divorce and having to move with her father and her new stepmother from Ohio to Mississippi, which she calls Mosquitoland. The story begins when she decides to run away from home and 947 miles by herself to be with her mom, whom she hasn’t heard from in several months. She steals her stepmother’s coffee can of secret money, buys a bus ticket and hits the road.

How it Gets Complicated:

The bus trip to Cleveland does not go smoothly for Mim. She has problems with several other passengers and causes a major malfunction with the bus’s toilet. Then the bus wrecks. What will Mim do?

What I Liked:

The story itself was pretty cool. It was easy to identify with Mim and her frustration with her family life and wanting to return to a more simple life with her mom. The structure of the book was well-thought-out. A lot of seemingly insignificant details from the beginning of  the book end up playing important roles later on in surprising ways. I think this showed some skillful writing, which I always enjoy reading.

What I Disliked:

I had a hard time with the characterization in the novel. Mim doesn’t seem like a believable person to me. She seems like a cliche of what an author who grew up in the ’90s and early ’00s would think an interesting girl to read about would be like.  I also felt like the book was preachy. It’s obvious in each situation that Mim gets into how the author thinks the reader ought to respond. It’s clear that there is a right and wrong reaction, and that the author is not interested in examining why anyone would have a different point of view from his own.

Recommendation:

This book cusses quite freely, so I would not recommend it to anyone sensitive to harsh language. Mim is kind of hyper-philosophical, so anyone who enjoys reading about deep-thinking, introspective characters will probably enjoy the book.

Hillbilly Elegy – Book 9 – Book Review 2.1

Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance

257 pages / Memoir / 5 out of 5 pistol packin’ mamaws

How it starts: Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir about JD Vance’s experiences growing up in Middletown, Ohio. He describes his family as hillbillies from Kansas transplanted in Ohio. As a child, JD experienced quite a bit of childhood trauma due to domestic violence in his family. He didn’t think much of it at the time, however, because his experience was fairly typical in his community, which was mostly made up of hillbilly families who had also migrated from Kansas during the last one or two generations. Quite a few of the stories he tells from his childhood come off as being quite funny, until the reader stops to reflect upon what those experiences must have been like for a little kid.

How it gets complicated: Vance puts his childhood experiences into perspective by expanding his narrative to discuss the general decline of jobs and other opportunities for white middle- and lower-class workers in Ohio. He does this so that he can discuss how he overcame the obstacles he did as a hillbilly kid who went on to defy the odds by becoming a Marine, graduating from college, and going on to graduate from Yale law school to become a successful lawyer.

What I liked: I have to admit that I really enjoyed all the crazy stories from JD’s youth, even though I acknowledge how awful they must have been. JD describes his grandmother (his mamaw) as a mean old hillbilly woman who almost always had a gun and was frequently threatening to shoot people with it. It’s not okay. But it makes for a funny story. I also liked the conclusions Vance reaches about people needing to take responsibility for their own lives and circumstances in order to rise above them. As a teacher, I found myself over and over again wishing I could get all of my junior high students to understand that lesson while they are young and still have time to do something about it.

What I disliked: There wasn’t much I disliked about this book. I felt like it began to slow down a bit once JD left home for the Marines and college and there were fewer stories about Mamaw, but it picked up again quickly as he the plot transitioned into Vance overcoming his problems to become a successful adult.

Recommendation: Anyone who feels like they have too many problems to overcome should read this book. Anyone who feels trapped or feels like most of their life decisions have already been determined by their circumstances would benefit from the story of a guy who overcame being a poor hillbilly with a terrifying home life to become a Marine and a Yale law school graduate. The only real drawback is that this book uses some pretty intense level 5 swears. If you are bothered by level 5 swears, I would not recommend reading this book.

Book Review #1 – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – Books 22, 23, 24, and 25

What I Read:

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by JK Rowling

734 pages / Fantasy / 4 out of 5 stars

How it Starts: Before returning from Hogwarts, Harry attends the Quidditch world cup with the Weasley family. After a rousing Quidditch match, a group of ne’erdowell wizards terrorize the camp surrounding the arena. Then, mysteriously, somebody conjures the Dark Mark the air, meaning that someone has been killed by one of Lord Voldemort’s Death Eaters. Amidst these troubling circumstances, Harry, Ron, and Hermione return to Hogwarts to learn that the school with by hosting an international Triwizard Tournament. Unfortunately for them, only wizards 17 or older can compete. However . . .

How it Gets Complicated: Harry discovers that, without even entering, his name has been pulled from the Goblet of Fire, meaning that he has no choice but to compete in the tournament. And all the while he keeps having realistic dreams about the Dark Lord’s plans to return to power. Are these events connected? What does it all mean? And how are a bunch of wizarding pimple-poppers supposed to get through it all?

What I Liked: I like all the Harry Potter books. The fact that JK Rowling can have kids flicking wands and riding brooms and make it at all believable is an incredible feat. Getting us to care about those kids is another thing in itself. This book does a better job at setting up a mystery than some of the other books do. I especially enjoyed how well this book does at portraying the awkward teenage side of the characters.

What I disliked: That being said, this is my least favorite of all the Harry Potter books. It seems unnecessarily long to me. The S.P.E.W. stuff is funny, and it gives us some insight into Hermione’s character, but it seems to take up a lot of space and doesn’t really move the plot along for how much time it takes up. It was also tough to keep my daughters engaged as I was reading these passages to them. There was a lot more in this book that just seemed slow without any kind of intellectual or thematic payoff.

Recommendation: I’m not a big fantasy reader, but I imagine most YA fantasy fans would love this book. I think Rowling does a good enough job of portraying realistic teenagers to give this book a broader appeal as well. You don’t have to be a fantasy fan to enjoy it.

Book Review #3 – The Emperor of Any Place – Books 8 and 9

The Emperor of Any Place by Tim Wynne-Jones

324 pages / Young Adult Fiction / 4 out of 5 stars

How it starts: Evan’s father, Clifford, has just died of a heart attack caused by the hardening of his heart tissue. Evan is now a sixteen-year-old orphan living alone in his father’s house. His grandfather, Griff, an old World War II soldier who his father hated, is coming over to help him settle the legal affairs in order.

How it gets complicated: Evan discovers that his dad was reading an account of two solders who were stranded on a Japanese Island during World War II. All Evan knows is that it has something to do with Griff, and that Griff doesn’t seem to want anyone to read it. Evan begins reading the book and learns that his Grandfather’s reasons for coming to town have less to do with helping Evan and more to do with keeping anyone else from discovering the secrets of his past.

What I liked: This book has a lot of things I like. I like historical fiction. I like being able to see that the author has done his or her homework while researching the details from the time period. I like mysteries about dirty deeds buried in the past. I like weaving the believable and the incredible together with such subtlety that the reader loses track of the distinction between the two. Tim Wynne-Jones does all this stuff and he does it pretty well.

What I disliked: It’s the contemporary, young adult frame through which this story is told that I’m not so crazy about. The characters are pretty flat. The protagonist, Evan, is a stereotypical moody emo character with no real depth, even when he should be experiencing some pretty heavy emotion. His grandfather, Griff, is a ninety-year-old antagonist whose reasons for being angry and combative since his days as a World War II soldier seem to make sense right up until they are fully revealed. The conversations between these characters are painful because of the forced antagonism and tension. One of my biggest pet peeves in dialogue is when authors try to create tension by having characters end all of their lines with condescending nick-names like “boy,” or “soldier.” There are also a lot of dry sarcastic responses like “Are you finished yet?” and that sort of cut-and-paste writing that got on my nerves a bit as I was reading.

Recommendation: I think just about anyone can enjoy this book. It cusses a few times, but not a ton.