Book Review: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli


Author: Becky Albertalli
TitleSimon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda
Narrator: Michael Crouch
Publication Info: Harper Audio, 2015
Summary/Review:

Simon is a closeted gay teenager living in the Atlanta suburbs and finding himself falling in love for the first time.  The problem is that the boy he loves he only knows through anonymous email exchanges.  Over the course of this novel, both Simon and “Blue” end up coming out and eventually meeting in real life.  But what’s great about this novel is that it explores the changes and complications of life in Simon’s circle of friends and family.  The book has a lot of heart, romance, and humor.

Recommended books:

Every Day by David Levithan and George by Alex Gino
Rating: ***1/2

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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: The Inventor’s Secret by Andrea Cremer


AuthorAndrea Cremer
TitleThe Inventor’s Secret
NarratorLeslie Bellair
Publication Info: Listening Library (2014)
Summary/Review:

This is the first in a series of an alternate universe dystopia in which Great Britain suppressed the revolution in the American colonies and have created a deeply stratified industrial tyranny.  I actually thought it was supposed to be set sometime in the far future, but since its  in the steampunk genre, it’s supposed to be in the 19th century despite the advanced technology.  The protagonist is Charlotte, a 16-year-old member of the resistance living with other children in camp hidden away from the empire.  When a mysterious newcomer arrives, it moves forward a plot for Charlotte, her brother and other companions to infiltrate the imperial society in New York.  It’s an interesting concept, but the story didn’t engage me .  I could see it’s appeal for younger readers interested in a mix of fantasy, alternate history, and romance.

Rating: **

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: ****

Book Review: Flight by Sherman Alexie


Author: Sherman Alexie
TitleFlight
Narrator: Adam Beach
Publication Info: [Ashland, Ore.] : Blackstone Audio, p2008.
Summary/Review:

This novel is told from the point-of-view of “Zits,” a teenager of Native American heritage being passed through the foster care system and acting out in response.  After growing increasingly and gruesomely violent, Zits is magically transported into other peoples’ bodies at different times in history including an FBI agent working against the indigenous rights movement, an Indian child at the time of the Battle of Little Big Horn, an Indian tracker working for the 19th-century U.S. Army, a pilot who trained an Islamic terrorist, and his own father.  These experiences help him learn the effects of violence both a personal decision and societal impact.  This is a pretty grim book but Alexie’s characterization of Zits brings an element of humor as well.  The conclusion of the book is a bit corny, but I think it’s an effective story reflecting on some serious issues in American history and today.

Recommended booksSlam by Nick Hornby, Every Day by David Levithan, and Waylaid by Ed Lin.
Rating: ***

Book Review: Why Is This Night Different from All Other Nights? by Lemony Snicket


Author: Lemony Snicket
TitleWhy Is This Night Different from All Other Nights? 
Narrator: Liam Aiken
Previous Books in the Series:

Publication Info:
Summary/Review:

The conclusion of the All the Wrong Questions series finds Lemony Snicket and all the other characters of the series on a train crossing the sea.  There are many twists, and dark humor, and betrayals, and when the mystery is eventually solved it is more sad than valedictory in the traditional Snicket manner.  A good end to a good series. Creative and fun, and a little bit sad.
Favorite Passages:

“The truth is like a doorknob. You can stumble around in the dark, and when you finally grasp it, you may end up someplace terrifying.”

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare


Author: Elizabeth George Speare
TitleThe Witch of Blackbird Pond
Narrator: Mary Beth Hurt
Publication Info: Listening Library, 2002 [Originally published in 1958]
Summary/Review:

As a child growing up in Connecticut, I developed a passion for history, particularly colonial American history and local history.  Yet somehow I missed this children’s novel set in 17th-century Connecticut.  Until now!

Kit Tyler leaves her home in Barbados after the death of her grandfather and seeks out her aunt in Wethersfield, Connecticut. While welcomed warmly to join her aunt’s family, Kit misses the sunshine and tropical splendor of Barbados, not to mention the slave labor that had kept her from the daily drudgery she now shares with her cousins.  Her free spirit is also at odds with the strict discipline of the Puritan community.  She finds a kindred spirit in Hannah Tupper, the “witch” of the title who is actually a Quaker forced to live on her own in the marshy areas on the edge of town.  As their friendship blossoms, suspicions grow in the community leading to accusations of witchcraft.

It’s a good novel, and while not 100% historically accurate, it uses its colonial Puritan setting well to create the atmosphere for a story of a positive young female character for the 20th century when it was written and now the 21st century as well.
Recommended booksJohnny Tremain by Esther Forbes, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol I: The Pox Party by M. T. Anderson, and Blindspot by Jane Kamensky & Jill Lepore
Rating: ***1/2

Artemis Fowl: The Last Guardian by Eoin Colfer


AuthorEoin Colfer
TitleArtemis Fowl: The Last Guardian
Narrator: Nathaniel Parker
Publication Info: New York : Listening Library, p2012.
Summary/Review:

The final installment in the Artemis Fowl series or so it would seem.  Opal Koboi has her biggest take over the world plot, Mulch Diggums has his biggest flatulence, and Artemis has his ultimate moment of genius.  And sacrifice.  Colfer’s humor stands out as Koboi raises an army with her minions occupying the bodies of the dead with comic results. It’s a nice distraction from the grim reality of a story that puts the entire world in peril.  This is a strong finale the series.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Happiness of Kati by Ngarmpun (Jane) Vejjajiva


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Thailand
Author: Ngarmpun (Jane) Vejjajiva
Title: The Happiness of Kati
Publication Info: New York : Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2006.
Summary/Review:

Kati, a nine-year-old girl lives with her grandparents and dreams of her mother who left five years earlier.  Finally, it’s revealed that her mother has ALS and is close to death.  The separation from her mother seems cruel, but it is obvious there’s a lot of love in this family.  They are reunited for Kati’s mother’s last days, a time where Kati learns a lot about her family.  Before dying, Kati’s mother tells her how she can contact her father who she has never met.  The final chapters detail Kati’s choice to seek out her father or not.  This is a touching novel, written from a perspective that realistically portrays the way a child views the world and deals with difficult issues like death.

Recommended booksThe Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer and The Book Thief by Markus Zusakd
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Artemis Fowl: The Atlantis Complex by Eoin Colfer


AuthorEoin Colfer
TitleArtemis Fowl: The Atlantis Complex 
NarratorNathaniel Parker
Publication Info: Listening Library (2010)
Summary/Review:

The penultimate volume in the Artemis Fowl series has the titular hero suffering the titular disease.  The Atlantis Complex is alleged to be brought on by feelings of guilt in recovering criminals leading to symptoms such as paranoia and multiple personality disorder.  This means of course that Artemis’ alternate personality emerges at the worst possible time leading to some chuckles, although I think Colfer overplays the joke.  The story has a different villain than Opal Koboi and this leads to some interesting variations in the adventure.  Also, Foaly is on the scene with Artemis, Holly, Mulch, & Butler making for a nice twist as well.  All in all, a solid story and an addition to the ongoing story arc of the series.  I look forward to reading the final installment.
Rating: ***

Book Review: Shouldn’t You Be In School? by Lemony Snicket


Author: Lemony Snicket
TitleShouldn’t You Be In School?
Narrator: Liam Aiken
Publication Info: [New York] : Hachette Audio, 2014.

Other Books Read By Same Author:

Summary/Review:

The third novel in the All the Wrong Questions series reaches a turning point in the overarching story, and contains a lot of surprises.  I like this novel particularly because the many supporting characters introduced over the course of the series come together as a team.  Even S. Theodora Markson gets a turn to break away from her arrogant mien and general incompetence.  While the themes in this novel are dark – children are essentially held in prison and drugged with laudanum, for starters – there’s an optimism that stands out among Snicket books, and satisfying twist at the conclusion.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: When you reach me by Rebecca Stead


Author: Rebecca Stead
TitleWhen you reach me
Narrator: Cynthia Holloway
Publication Info: [New York] : Listening Library, 2009.
Summary/Review:

This young adult novel is grounded in a realistic setting of New York’s Upper West Side in the 1970s with the protagonist Miranda dealing with going to school, a falling-out with a friend, and her mother appearing on a tv game show.  Added to this are mystery and science fiction elements such as Miranda receiving unexplained notes that predict the future and a seemingly homeless “laughing man” having a constant presence on the street near her school.  It’s a good blend of storytelling techniques that deals with children gaining independence, friendship, and second chances.
Recommended booksThe Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem, Tunneling by Beth Bosworth, The Time It Takes to Fall by Margaret Lazarus Dean and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Rating: ***

Book Reviews: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys


Author: Ruta Sepetys
TitleBetween Shades of Gray
Narrator:Emily Klein
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2011)
Summary/Review:

This novel set in the World War II-era depicts the oppression of Lithuanian partisans through the eyes of 15-year-old Lina.  A promising young artists, Lina and her mother and brother are rounded up by the NKVD with other women, children, the elderly, and disabled and transported to a labor camp in Siberia.  The narrative depicts the hardscrabble life as Lina and her community in the labor camp as they struggle to survive.  But there are also moments of joy and unexpected solace.  It’s a decent novel and an introduction to the Stalinist persecution of Lithuania.

Recommended booksStalemate by Icchokas Meras, The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years by Chingiz Aitmatov, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Rating: **1/2

Book Reviews: Artemis Fowl: The Time Paradox by Eoin Colfer


Author: Eoin Colfer
TitleArtemis Fowl: The Time Paradox
NarratorEnn Reitel
Publication Info: New York : Random House/Listening Library, p2008.

Books I’ve Previously Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

I gave up on reading the Artemis Fowl series a while back because I felt it was becoming formulaic with diminishing returns.  But I had a change of heart, and after a decade decided to pick up where I left off.  It felt good to be reacquainted with the characters like old friends.  And this book strikes me as more mature than the earlier novels.  In order to save his mother, a teenage Artemis has to go back in time with Holly to face his most devious opponent yet: his 10-year-old self.  The novel oozes with philosophical ideas and pondering of mortality.  The book also features a group of people whose goal is to cause extinction of animals, which is particularly grim.  Sure, the formula is still there (Mulch Diggums shows up for some fart jokes and the ultimate villain is the same old character) but it feels refreshed and new.  I’ll have to continue reading the newer installments of this series.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Looking for Alaska by John Green


AuthorJohn Green
TitleLooking for Alaska
NarratorJeff Woodman
Publication Info: [Grand Haven, Mich.] : Brilliance Audio, 2006.
Previously Read By Same Author:  The Fault in Our Stars and An Abundance of Katherines.
Summary/Review:

This novel is told by a boy named Miles who transfers into a boarding school where he befriends his roommate “The Colonel” and falls in love with an intelligent, attractive, but impulsive young woman named Alaska.  Like other works in the boarding school genre, the story involves a lot of drinking, smoking, sex, and pranks.  But Miles also attends classes and his religious studies class in particular play’s an important role in helping Miles deal with some of the issues he’s facing in his life.

I don’t want to give anything away, but the novel turns on a tragic moment.  On the downside, I found the book draws a little too much on the “women in refrigerators” trope and moral lessons that are a bit too pat.  Overall though, I found it an accurate and entertaining depiction of teenage life.

Recommended booksThe Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, and Fade by Robert Cormier
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: When Did You See Her Last? by Lemony Snicket


AuthorLemony Snicket
TitleWhen Did You See Her Last?
Narrator: Liam Aiken
Publication Info: [New York] : Hachette Audio, [2013]
Other Books Read By Same Author:

Summary/Review:

The second installment of All the Wrong Questions picks up in Stain’d-by-the-Sea with Lemony Snicket investigating a missing person’s case, putatively with the help of his chaperon S. Theodora Markson.  It continues to be a whimsical mix of mystery novel and humor.  One thing that stands out is that other than Snicket as narrator, the major characters in this novel are all women, which is a refreshing change.  I’m looking forward to the next installment.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Who Could That Be at This Hour? by Lemony Snicket


AuthorLemony Snicket
TitleWho Could That Be at This Hour?
Narrator:  Liam Aiken
Publication Info: 9781619695375
Other Books Read By Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Daniel Handler under his nom-de-plume Lemony Snicket narrated the trials and travails of the Baudelaire children in a A Series of Unfortunate Events.  In this series, All the Wrong Questions, Lemony Snicket tells “his own” story of how as a teenager he became involved in a secret organization, was assigned to the worst chaperon, and begins his first assignment in the town of Stain’d-by-the-Sea.  The book reads as a pastiche of classic children’s adventures and noir detective stories with memorable characters, a lot of humor, and puzzles to solve.  It’s a good start to the series and I look forward to reading more.
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Librarian (Book One: Little Boy Lost) by Eric Hobbs


AuthorEric Hobbs
TitleThe Librarian (Book One: Little Boy Lost)
Publication Info: Amazon Digital Services, Inc., 2011
Summary/Review:

This is a book I picked up as a Kindle deal because I like stories set in libraries.  This is a pretty imaginative one.  Wesley is a bookish boy bullied by his peers with one true friend Taylor.  On a class trip to their town’s mysterious library, Wes and Tay discover that the library offers portals into books.  A Lost Boy from Peter Pan joins them as they hide from villains by entering The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  It’s kind of young adult fiction take on Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, although with a less-engaging writing style.  Still, the book was interesting enough to keep me turning the pages.

Recommended books: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, A Soul to Steal by Rob Blackwell, Alcatraz Versus The Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson, Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum.
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Eye of Zoltar by Jasper Fforde


AuthorJasper Fforde
TitleThe Eye of Zoltar
Publication Info: HMH Books for Young Readers (2014)
ISBN: 0547738498
Previous books in the Chronicles of Kazam:

Summary/Review:

This is the third book in Fforde’s young adult series The Chronicles of Kazam, and the best installment so far.  Jennifer Strange, the teenage orphan tasked with managing an employment agency for sorcerers, is tasked with crossing the border out of the Kingdom of Snodd into the Cambrian Empire, a nation known for entertaining daredevil tourists (and leaving many of them dead).  Accompanying her are a ragtag bunch including a rapidly-aging wizard, a princess magically body-swapped with a handmaid, a rubberized dragon, an Australopithecus, and a ten-year old tour guide.  This book is an adventure filled with Fforde’s trademark clever wit that also works as a satire on both sword & sorcery tropes and our modern society.
Favorite Passages:

“All of us are somewhat clairvoyant; any future you can dream up, no matter how bizarre, retains the faint possibility of coming true.”

“It’s somewhat bizarre to learn that many of you think other humans are somehow different enough to be killed, when you’re all tiresomely similar in outlook, needs, and motivation, and differ only in peculiar habits, generally shaped by geographical circumstance.”

“Death cannot be avoided forever, but it can be postponed—it’s very much like doing the dishes.”

“Honor is kind of what you get when you weaponize manners, but if you’re brought up in a system where honor is valued more than life itself, it makes a lot more sense. Some. A bit.”

“I’d been an idiot to think that this journey was anything but a quest. Searches were nice and soft and cuddly and no one needed to be killed. A quest always demanded the death of a trusted friend and one or more ethical dilemmas. I’d put us all in jeopardy, and now, as likely as not, I was going to lose the one person I cared for most.”

“To have a purpose is the right of all sentient beings,” said Gabby, touching my shoulder. “To have a vitally important purpose is an honor not often bestowed.”

Rating: ****

Book Review: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowel


Author: Rainbow Rowel
TitleEleanor & Park
Publication Info: New York : Listening Library, 2013.

Summary/Review:

This novel set in Omaha in 1986 tells of the young love of the 16 year old protagonists Eleanor and Park.  Eleanor lives in poverty with her mother’s abusive boyfriend making an ordinary teenage life impossible.  Park is half-Korean and likes New Wave bands, and chooses to fly low amid the jock culture of his school.  A lot about Eleanor and Park and their romance rings true.  I especially like the depiction of the hierarchy aboard the school bus, and even late in the book when they must rely on the bullies for help at a time of distress.  Unfortunately, a lot the other characters in the book are very two-dimensional.  Eleanor’s mother’s boyfriend is a bad TV movie abusive villain.  Park’s mother struggles to emerge from the Asian mother stereotype.  Still, this story is a unique and honest look at the passions and ideas of young love.

Recommended booksThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green and Every Day by David Levithan.
Rating: ***