Book Review: The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain


Author: Mark Twain
TitleThe Prince and the Pauper
Narrator: Kenneth Jay
Publication Info:  Naxos AudioBooks , 2001
Summary/Review:

I remember enjoying this book as a child (although I can’t remember what age) and since my son is interested in Mark Twain, we listened to the audiobook on a recent road trip.  It was a little bit more complicated than I remembered, and frankly we both had trouble following parts of the story, but perhaps that is a challenge of audiobooks compared with print.  The basic story is well-known in which the poor and abused Tom Canty meets Prince Edward and discovering they resemble one another, swap clothing.  Through a comedy of errors, they are separated and end up with Tom unwillingly becoming king and the prince having to live life at the very bottom of society.  All works out in the end, and Twain is probably too kind on Edward VI’s actual legacy as king, but the book delves into some of the gritty realities of impoverished masses and the court intrigues of the elites.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener’s Bones by Brandon Sanderson


Author: Brandon Sanderson
TitleAlcatraz Versus the Scrivener’s Bones
Narrator: Ramon De Ocampo
Publication Info: Recorded Books (2012)
Previously Read by the Same Author: Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians
Summary/Review:

Six years ago I read the first book in the Alcatraz series and really enjoyed it and meant to continue with the series.  Now at last I’ve read the second book in the series and it was worth the wait.  Sanderson’s Alcatraz Smedry is an unreliable narrator who keeps interrupting the story to deliberately make the reader question everything.  It’s gimmicky but in-universe it works since the concept of this world is that evil librarians control reality.  It’s a funny adventure set in the Library of Alexandria, and Sanderson is committed to the idea of the wraith-like curators persistently trying to trick the human visitors into taking a book in exchange for their soul.  It’s a clever and enjoyable read and I should not wait so long to continue the series.

Recommended booksA Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer and Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik


Author: Naomi Novik
TitleHis Majesty’s Dragon
NarratorSimon Vance
Publication Info: Books on Tape (2007)
Summary/Review:

I imagine the author read the Aubrey/Maturin series and thought “I’d like to write that same type of book. With dragons.”  Set in the Napoleonic Wars, this is a historic novel for the most part, with the exception that dragons are real and used by the British and French for airborne battles.  It begins when Naval captain Will Laurence captures a dragon egg from a French ship and forms a bond with the young dragon Temeraire after he hatches.  Laurence and Temeraire quickly form a close relationship, but Laurence is forced to resign from the Navy and join the Aerial Corps, which is not only mysterious and dangerous, but has very low social standing.  Laurence learns that life in the Aerial Corps is more relaxed than in other branches of the military, and that women are paired with dragons and afforded equal standing, so the book is also a comedy of manners in many ways.  Plus, there are cool aerial battles.

I’ve learned that this is the first in a series of 9 books, and while I enjoyed this book, I’m not sure I want to commit to the whole series (I couldn’t even get through all of Aubrey/Maturin).  If you’ve read them, let me know if it is worth continuing.

Recommended booksMaster and Commander by Patrick O’Brian
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Blizzard of the Blue Moon by Mary Pope Osbourne


Author: Mary Pope Osbourne
TitleBlizzard of the Blue Moon   
Publication Info: New York : Random House, c2006.
Summary/Review:

This may be my favorite Magic Tree House book yet.  Jack and Annie are sent to Depression-era New York City to find a unicorn (SPOILER: If you didn’t guess, it’s in the Cloisters museum, although there’s a great diversion where Jack & Annie try to go to the Bronx Zoo).  Jack & Annie take a subway and a cab on their quest as they have to fight against a blizzard and a pair of dark wizards en route to their goal.  What’s great about this book is that the fantasy and adventure elements are blended so well with an honest portrayal of the poverty and desperation of the Depression.
Rating: ****

TV Review: Game of Thrones (2016)


TitleGame of Thrones
Release Dates: 2016
Season: 6
Number of Episodes: 10
Summary/Review:

In the brutal winter of 2015, I idly decided to give this Game of Thrones show a chance (my wife is a huge fan of the books) and ended up binge-watching all four seasons then in existence.  Medieval fantasy is not usually my thing and the violence on this show can be overwhelming, but I got sucked into the stories and the performances, particularly by Maisie Williams, Peter Dinklage, Emilia Clarke, Rory McCann, Conleth Hill, John Bradley, Jerome Flynn, Liam Cunningham, Gwendolyn Christie, and Natalie Dormer.  So then I listened to all five of the audiobooks, and was ready just in time to watch season five as it was broadcast.

And I was disappointed.  The show not only went off-the-book, it went off the rails.  The Dorne plot – a dull tangent in the books – became even more pointless in its tv adaptation.  Ramsey Bolton was repeatedly depicted as senselessly cruel turning a menacing character into a caricature.  And interesting characters like Brienne, Arya, and Daenerys tread water for much of the season.  So I was not looking forward to season six.

Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised.  Season six sees an improvement in writing, several startling revelations, and most impressively some really fantastic directing and cinematography.  This is particularly true of the final two episodes, “Battle of the Bastards”  and  “The Winds of Winter,”  both directed by  Miguel Sapochnik. This season also re-introduces the Greyjoy story on the Iron Islands and the story of Bran and his companions north of the wall, although both stories felt rushed, it was good to see these characters again.  In retrospect, I think it would’ve been wiser of Game of Thrones to spend more time with these stories sprinkled over seasons 5 and 6, rather than their half-assed attempt at the Dorne story (which they literally killed off in season 1.

Some highlights of season 6:

  • The rise of the High Sparrow in King’s Landing (Jonathan Pryce does a great job of making a religious fanatic seem to be the most reasonable person around)
  • The return of Jon Snow
  • The reunion of Jon and Sansa
  • Bran’s visions of his family’s past
  • Theon reuniting with Yara and supporting her as Queen
  • Daenerys victory over the khals
  • The death of Hodor – “hold the door!” – <sniff>
  • The return of The Hound and the Brother Ray’s pacifist community
  • Lady Mormont in every single scene she appears in
  • Arya recognizing her identity and purpose
  • The “Battle of the Bastards” is an amazingly filmed and choreographed with scenes unsettlingly reminiscent of the Hillsborough Disaster but with swords and pikes.  It was amazing work of film, but so disturbing I don’t think I’d ever want to watch it again
  • The building tension of the scenes leading up to the destruction of the Great Sept and the heartbreaking simplicity of the depiction of Tommen’s suicide
  • Sam’s joy at seeing the library at the Citadel
  • The revelation of Jon’s parentage
  • Daenerys making Tyrion the Hand of the Queen

There are still moments of the season that missed the mark, with some poor leaps of logic, but overall this season showed the best of what Game of Thrones can be and established the setting for the climactic final seasons.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Jackaby by William Ritter


Author:  William Ritter
Title:  Jackaby
Narrator: Nicola Barber
Publication Info: HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books (2014)
Summary/Review:

This detective novel set in 1892 in a fictional city in New England openly acknowledges that it is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche in the opening pages.  Even “Sherlock Holmes with fantastical and supernatural elements” has been done before, but Jackaby remains fresh and entertaining.  The title character is an investigator who can see evidence of the paranormal.  The story is narrated by Abigail Rook, a young woman seeking adventure who steps off the ship at New Fiddleham and quickly becomes Jackaby’s assistant embroiled in solving a series of grisly murders.

The narration wisely stays with Abigail as we see Jackaby slowly become a warmer character, but still retaining an air of mystery.  The story has a lot of humor mixed with moments of horror, although nothing overly terrifying.  It’s a fun story and I will seek out other installments in the series.

 

Favorite Passages:

“Monsters are easy, Miss Rook. They’re monsters. But a monster in a suit? That’s basically just a wicked man, and a wicked man is a more dangerous thing by far.”
This makes them dreaded creatures, feared and hated by any who hear them, a treatment far disparate from the honor and appreciation they used to receive for their mourning services. Banshees themselves are not dangerous, though, just burdened with the task of expressing pain and loss.

That the battles are usually in her head does not lessen the bravery of it. The hardest ones always are.

Happiness is bliss–but ignorance is anesthetic.

Recommended booksThe Diviners by Libba Bray,  The Monster in the Mist by Andrew Mayne, The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl, The Technologists by Matthew Pearl, The Night Inspector by Frederick Busch, and The Alienist by Caleb Carr
Rating: ****

Book Review: Good Morning, Gorillas by Mary Pope Osbourne


Author: Mary Pope Osbourne
TitleGood Morning, Gorillas
Publication Info: New York : Random House, 2006.
Summary/Review:

Another delightful Magic Tree House journey where Annie and Jack spend a few days living among a family of mountain gorillas in Congo and learn the “magic” of communication.  Osbourne knows a lot about gorilla behavior and incorporates it into the story in informative and entertaining ways.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Reviews: Haunted Castle on Hallows Eve by Mary Pope Osbourne


Author: Mary Pope Osbourne
TitleHaunted Castle on Hallows Eve 
Publication Info: Random House Books for Young Readers (2010)
Summary/Review:

There’s such a great variety of stories in the Magic Tree House series.  Having just read the historical fiction of a story set at the Paris World’s Fair of 1889, we read this book set in the totally magic world of Camelot.  Annie, Jack, & Teddy must go to a clean up a haunted castle.  Oh, and they turn into ravens.  And there’s a pretty cool divide of talents among the three children.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Reviews: Night of the New Magicians by Mary Pope Osbourne


Author: Mary Pope Osbourne
TitleNight of the New Magicians
Publication Info: New York : Random House, 2006.
Summary/Review:

This is a really entertaining installment of the Magic Tree House series where Annie and Jack visit the Paris World’s Fair of 1889 to learn of for forms of “magic.”  The magic is actual the inventions and discoveries of Gustave Eiffel, Louis Pasteur, Thomas Edison, and Alexander Graham Bell who all meet in a memorable scene atop the Tour Eiffel.  Annie and Jack also end up flying on a bicycle.  Cool stuff!

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008)


Title: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Release Date: 2008
Director:  Dave Filoni
Summary/Review:

Feeling all Star Wars-ish lately, I decided to watch this animated movie set in between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.  Obi Wan and Anakin are leading clone armies into battle against the separatists and have to negotiate a treaty with Jabba the Hutt and have a padawan Ahsoka Tano delivered into their midst.  The animation allows for visual sequences that might not be possible/plausible in a live-action film, although some of the battle sequences remind me of 1980s GI Joe or Transformers cartoons (which may be good or bad depending on how much you enjoyed them).  I thought that the character work was pretty strong especially the interactions between Obi Wan and Anakin and Anakin and Ahsoka.  Much better than in the prequel trilogy where characterization and development was given short shrift.  But really this movie is worth watching for the scene in which R2-D2 basically uses a Baby Bjorn to carry Jabba the Hutt’s son.

If that’s not weird enough, we also meet Ziro the Hutt, Jabba’s uncle who is coded as being fabulously gay with the voice of Truman Capote.  Padme is introduced late into the story, and while it’s good to see her, she is swiftly taken captive and doesn’t add much to the story.  But I found myself enjoying this movie despite myself.  I hear that the spinoff series is better, so I may give that a watch.
Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Return of the Jedi (1983)


Title:  Return of the Jedi
Release Date: 1983
Director:  Richard Marquand
Summary/Review:

And so we conclude introducing the children to the classic trilogy of Star Wars films.  The kids enjoyed this and certainly got a lot more laughs than the previous two installments.  Return of the Jedi certainly does have more humor and a positive spirit of bonhomie that is a big tonal shift from Empire Strikes Back. On the other hand the Luke-Vader-Emperor scenes have an undertone of menace I didn’t catch as a child (although at least one of my kids was spooked). The portions at Jabba’s palace really creeped me out as a kid, and they’re still pretty creepy (I didn’t recall just how gruesome it is when Leia chokes Jabba to death)

Over the years, Return of the Jedi has gotten a bad rap, but I loved it as a kid and I think it still holds up.  . People criticize the Ewoks, but dammit, I love the Ewoks.  Not only are they cute, but the whole success of the Rebellion hinges on the fact that the Emperor is too narrow to foresee that a small, non-human species will ally with the Rebels and turn the tide of the battle.  Of all the changes made for the Special Editions, this one fares the worst in my opinion.  Give me back my Ewok celebration song and the ghost of Sebastian Shaw! All things considered, it was a delight to revisit this series of childhood memories with my own kids.
Rating: *****

Movie Review: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)


Title:  The Empire Strikes Back
Release Date: 1980
Director:   Irving Kushner
Summary/Review:

Still the best of the Star Wars films, allowing space for the characters to breath and grow and for the actors to show their chops, while still having intertwining action plots that come together at the end.  And it’s funny.  It certainly wasn’t satisfying as kid to have it just end with the good guys essentially losing and so much unresolved.  Watching this with my kids for the first time meant lots of questions, Yoda being scary, and Darth Vader being unexpectedly cool.
Rating: *****

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)


TitleStar Wars: The Force Awakens
Release Date: 2015
Director: J.J. Abrams
Summary/Review:

I was probably among the last people in the Star Wars-loving universe to see this movie, but it was worth the wait.  The Star Wars franchise is back in good standing with this movie that, yes, has great special effects and action sequences, but more importantly it has a good story, terrific acting, and heart.  While it was great that old favorites such as Han, Chewie, and Leia play an important role, I’m impressed with how the new characters Rey, Finn, and Poe slide so seamlessly into the Star Wars saga and the lead roles of the film.  And I’m really amazed by the acting ability of Daisy Ridley, John Boyega,  and Oscar Issac.  The future of Star Wars is in good hands and I look forward to the upcoming sequels and side projects.  While The Force Awakens isn’t quite good enough to unseat The Empire Strikes Back as the best Star Wars movie, I think it sits comfortable beside the original Star Wars in a tie for second.
Rating: ****1/2

Related Post: 38 Things About Me and Star Wars

Book Review: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton


Author:  Leslye Walton
TitleThe Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender
Publication Info:  Somerville, MA : Candlewick Press, 2014.
Summary/Review:

This is a story about a girl born with wings. The novel details three generations of her family’s life filled with heartbreak, tragedy, and little touches of magical realism on every page. It’s basically what would happen if Laura Esquivel or Isabel Allende were transported to the Pacific Northwest.  While the quirkiness can get overbearing at times, this is an engaging story with a lyric beauty. And while the climax is horrific, the finale is optimistic.

Recommended booksSong of Solomon by Toni Morrison, Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel and Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Rating: ****

Movie Review: Star Wars (1977)


Title:  Star Wars
Release Date: 1977
Director:   George Lucas
Summary/Review:
Rating: ****1/2

What can you say about this movie in 2016?  Most people know and love the movie and our popular culture is steeped in its motifs.  But this was the first time my children watched the movie and  the first time I’ve watched it in a long, long time (but still within this galaxy).  The kids generally claim not to like movies, but they liked this one and asked to watch it again, which is always a good sign.  I wonder what it’s like to watch Star Wars for the first time when it’s something that’s always been around and references are wound into our culture like mythology as opposed to when I was a child and it was brand new?  I was impressed that the movie holds up very well.  There are many things from the 70s, 80s, & 90s that seem to have dated much more than this.  Of course, I’m an old fuddy-duddy and prefer the somewhat slower pace and practical special effects of Star Wars to many of today’s blockbusters.  But really the stories and the characters are what made the movie what it is and what makes it persist.  So simple, rooted in older stories, yet so fresh and new at the same time.

Book Review: Vampires In The Lemon Grove by Karen Russell


Author: Karen Russell
Title: Vampires in the Lemon Grove
Narrator: Arthur Morey, Mark Bramhall, Jesse Bernstein, Michael Bybee, Kaleo Griffith, Joy Osmanski
Publication Info: Books on Tape, 2013
Summary/Review:
This collection of short stories is hard to describe. Not really science fiction, not really fanatasy, not really horror, maybe magical realism, definitely weird stories. Sometimes humorous, sometimes chilling we meet a variety of interesting characters: vampires who realize that sucking blood does nothing so they suck lemons instead, young Japanese women indentured to make silk with their own bodies, a massage therapist who discovers she can manipulate the life of a veteran through his back tattoo, and a guide writer for fans of the whale vs. krill “games” in Antarctica. The stories are all clever and well-written. And each story is matched up with a perfect narrator.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Big Fish (2003)


Title: Big Fish
Release Date: 2003
Director: Tim Burton
Summary/Review:

The center of this story is a son trying to reconcile with his dying father. Edward is a man who charms people with his stories but Will feels that stories prevented him from really knowing his father. This being a Tim Burton film, the stories are dramatized in all their splendor with witche and werewolves, circuses and mysterious towns, a giant and conjoined twins, and lots and lots of fish metaphors. 

It has a Southern Gothic motif like Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? and Forrest Gump, but unlike those films doesn’t even acknowledge segregation which is a disturbing omission. There’s also a part where Edward pursues the woman he wants to marry in ways that are stalker creepy rather than romantic. There are some good bits too. I particularly liked a gag about a Texas bank being robbed by real estate speculators. 

On the whole the this movie feels flat. The music and the drama are telling you that there’s supposed to be a meaningful message about storytelling and life, and the cast of talented actors are trying their best, but the relationships just aren’t there.  This movie has a lot of wonder, but it doesn’t have much heart. 

Rating: **

Book Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs


Author: Ransom Riggs
Title:Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
Narrator:  Jesse Bernstein
Publication Info: Random House Audio, 2011
Summary/Review:

16-year-old Jacob travels to a remote Welsh island to learn more about the shelter that took in his grandfather during World War II.  Through some mysterious encounters and time travel he learns that the children at this home were not just refugees, but have magical powers.  It’s entertaining fluff and I’m mildly interested in finding out what happens next in the sequels, but I’m not sure if I’m going to invest the time.
Recommended booksThe Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, and Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel
Rating: **1/2

Book Reviews: The Left-Handed Hummingbird by Kate Orman


Author: Kate Orman
Title:The Left-Handed Hummingbird
Publication Info: London : Doctor Who Books, 1993.
Summary/Review:

This Doctor Who novel is epic in scope from contemporary Mexico to the Aztec empire to hippie London in the 60s to the John Lennon assassination to the sinking of Titanic. And yet, this may be the most internal story for the Doctor and his companions.  Their relationship is strained, especially the Doctor and Ace since she’s become something of soldier during her absence from the TARDIS. Worse yet, the Doctor faces an antagonist manifest as an Aztec god who is altering history.  The Doctor’s usual strategy of manipulating people and events fail and we see him at his most defeated. This novel is good in that it’s a rare story that’s set in Latin America in both precolonial and contemporary settings.  The only downside is that like Timewyrm: Exodus  it credits some historical acts of human evil to extraterrestrial influence.  This was the first novel by Kate Orman, who was also the first woman and first Australian to write for the Doctor Who line, and it’s a pretty remarkable achievement in how it reimagines what a Doctor Who story can be.
Favorite Passages:

“Has it ever occurred to you that the reason the sacrifices are made is to dispose of foreign warriors taken captive in battle – and to cause more and more battles to be fought?’”

“‘It’s already written in the book of history,’ he continued. ‘Painted in the records. Nothing I can do or say is going to change it. But there’s something else here, something that isn’t in the book, or wasn’t the last time I visited. Things have changed. Something’s wrong. Someone’s interfering. I need to find a way to read between the lines…’”

“‘Time travel,’ said Bernice, ‘is like banging your head on a brick wall. Only someone keeps moving the bricks.’”

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin


AuthorUrsula Le Guin
TitleA Wizard of Earthsea
NarratorHarlan Ellison
Publication Info: San Bruno, CA : Fantastic Audio, p2001. [originally published, 1968]
Summary/Review:

This fantasy novel set in the magical land of Earthsea introduces Ged, a boy whose magical ability shines in a society with numerous witches and practitioners of magic.  After saving his village from an attack, Ged is taken as apprentice by a wise wizard and then sent to wizarding school.  Despite his talent and proclamations that he may become the greatest wizard, Ged is headstrong and impatient and unleashes an evil shadow that follows him around and tries to possess his body.  Ged thus has to face many quests and challenges to learn how to face down the shadow creature and understand himself.  It’s a good novel, and apparently pretty influential as many of the tropes and ideas are picked up by other fantasy novels.  Harlan Ellison’s reading of the audiobook is a dynamic performance that captures Ged’s anger and uncertainty.

Recommended booksThe Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper, The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling and Eragon by Christopher Paolini.
Rating: **1/2