Thursday, March 28, 2013

Dented Cans by Heather Walsh

I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Summary: A family secret is revealed during an ill-fated—yet hilarious—trip to Disney World.

Sixteen-year-old Hannah Sampson knows her family is not what you would call normal. Her father compulsively buys dented cans and has a particular fondness for cans without labels, which are extremely discounted because their contents are a mystery. Her mother takes countless pictures of her family and then glues them down into the pages of her scrapbooks, but does not allow anyone to look at them. Ryan, Hannah’s mischievous fourteen-year-old brother, is headed straight for the remedial track at the local community college, if he’s lucky. Ben, her eight-year-old brother, is a walking sound effects machine, who prefers to communicate with noises rather than words. While Hannah is focused on escaping her working-class Connecticut suburb, she also finds herself being tugged back home as she worries about her brother Ben.

Hannah’s parents inflict one last family vacation on the Sampson children, a trip that goes comically wrong almost from the get-go. Hannah is forced to confront her family’s past in Disney World, of all places, when an emotional argument prompts her parents to disclose a secret they have been keeping from the children for sixteen years. Ultimately, she must decide whether to leave her hometown and not look back, or to focus on helping her family.

My thoughts: You know how sometimes a great book comes along that on putting alongside all the review copies you have read up to that point, seems, most incredibly, even greater. Last year, it may have been The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap that did that for me. This year, it is Dented Cans. It would be rather unfair and would count as cheating to go back and slightly reduce the ratings of all the books I've reviewed (I only rate review copies, the idea of giving books stars bothers me, but that's another issue.) So, instead I'm going to give this book six stars (out of five... yes, that was a joke.) Dented Cans has left me in complete awe.

I could easily identify with Hannah. For one, she has a habit of going off on tangents and tends to ramble. That may be a problem for some readers, but she seemed quite sensible to me. Hannah seems much older than she is, too thoughtful, always worrying, responsible, while still being quirky and ready, even at the most uncanniest of times, for a laugh! Most writers tend to make kids seem more childish than they ought to be at that age, but Heather hasn't made that mistake with Hannah. She adds a sort of dry humour, which adds a dash of bright colour to the otherwise darker story.

All the characters in this book might as well be real people with real problems, just trying to find their place in this world. The family that Heather has created is so fleshed out, Ryan and Hannah, Mom and Dad and even the ones that are only referred. The book really made me think and the thoughts revolved around in my mind for a long time. You could say the book is about family secrets, or the fact that there is a lot more to people than you see on the outside. Every person has some story hidden deep under, that makes them into what they are, makes them do the things they do and we may not always be quite able to understand it. But we ought to respect it. 

It seemed like such an odd book, with the strange title and the cover that gives it the appearance of a non-fiction about dented cans. You don't have any girls in huge gowns with fancy hair and painted faces on the cover, though it seems to be so 'in' these days. The book, quite like its cover, is like nothing I've already come across. If you're one of those readers, who steer clear of self-published books, this little novel might just change your mind. Grab your copy right now!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller

It's funny how people either totally love or totally hate this book. I also think it was weird how so many of those negative reviews are focused on the fact that 'a true love story could never involve an affair.' I am not really an expert on romance literature, but even I know that the theme isn't exactly new.

The first time I read The Bridges of Madison County, it was a quick breezy, have-got-nothing-else-to-do read. When I re-read it for the book-club, I let myself be completely engaged in it and it worked wonders on my impression! The book has much to offer and the only way to acquire it, as the narrator says so himself, is to let go of any preconceived judgement and cynicism.

The book is very subtle, which, I realized during my 're-read', may be the reason why people just don't seem to get it. It's more than a brief affair between a bored wife, who is looking for an adventure of the physical kind and this sexy photographer who just happens to be there. Look at Francesca's history, her brief relationship with this artist that her parents brought to an end, the circumstance under which she married Richard, the soldier, her passion for teaching and literature and the idea that she had to give it all up and settle in this small American town as a farmer's wife. She was indeed unhappy with the marriage. But Francesca wasn't 'looking' for an affair. She liked her life, the people were 'nice', she never really thought about how much she had had to change, till the interesting (not just sexy) photographer asked her how she found Iowa. Robert Kincaid reminded her of something she had let go of a long time ago - passion: the physical stuff was one part of it. It's easy to scoff at an affair, and much easier to ignore why she was lead to it.

People have said it was morbid, the way she told her children of her affair in the letter. The letter had such a homey air to it, it was funny, awkward and very open and that is exactly the sort of relationship a woman like Francesca would have formed with her children. The movie version of it bothered me - especially Michael's reaction.

The movie really was as good as the book, and I hardly ever say this about any adaptation. Even the additions made, apart from Francesca's little outburst in the middle, were fitting. My biggest criticism for the book was that Francesca never made anything out of the love that she developed for Robert other than treasuring the memory. She just remained this sad, depressing person, with nothing good in her life but the memory of those four days. In the movie, though, she goes out of her way to form a bond with the woman who has been shunned by the town.

I thought the book was very well written, the prose is perhaps a little too poetic at times, but the tension never weakens. The book is very quotable and it is one of the rare occasions when that is actually a good thing. The book had its flaws, of course, but overall, considering how hugely soppy romances could be, I thought this one was pretty good. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Lizzy Speare and the Cursed Tomb by Ally Malinenko

I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Summary: Meet Lizzy Speare…

…a normal twelve year old girl with a talent for writing, who has a very not normal family secret. And when Lizzy’s father vanishes, that secret will change her life in ways unimagined. (Spoiler Alert! It turns out that Lizzy, or Elizabeth S. Speare, is the last living descendant of William Shakespeare. Shhh! Don’t tell anybody!)

Then Lizzy and her best friend Sammy are kidnapped, awakening in the faraway land of Manhattan. Their host is Jonathan Muse, whose job is to protect Lizzy from becoming the latest victim in a family feud nearly five hundred years old. Could that be why the mysterious, eye patch-wearing Dmitri Marlowe is after her? (Spoiler Alert 2—he’s the last living descendant of Christopher Marlowe, a friend and rival of Shakespeare’s. But keep it to yourself!) Is Marlowe after Lizzy’s family fortune rumored to be kept in Shakespeare’s tomb? Does he seek artistic immortality? Or Revenge (with a capital R) for a death long, long ago?

In a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse, Lizzy and Sammy are thrust into the realm of the mythical and fantastic—from satyrs and Cyclopses to Middle Eastern cab drivers and Brooklyn hipsters—in what is truly “an improbable fiction” as the Bard himself once wrote.

My thoughts: What a book. I wish I could just say, "The book is amazing." and be done with it. I have to admit, I wasn't sure I would like the book quite so much. One the one hand, the fact that the summary mentioned Shakespeare and Marlowe was enough to convince my literature student self that that was the book for me. On the other hand, the title is a bit cheesy-sounding and the cover made me wonder if it would turn out to be a little too teenagery for me. But it was great - very imaginative, funny and so very unique! It was... delicious... is it alright to call a book that? 

I am not exactly a Shakespeare fanatic, mostly because it hasn't been very long since I started reading him and I'm far from done. One fine day it suddenly occurred to me that I had never read any of his plays, so I went on a sort of 'Bard(ing) spree' when I read all my now-favourites. It must be very hard to have real authors as characters in your book (like Dickens in Pratchett's Dodger) and Ally has done a wonderful job incorporating Shakespeare and all the secrecy surrounding him into her story. I would recommend this book to all middle grade readers / teenagers, if not anything else, it would certainly be a good, unlikely introduction to a great writer.

It is such a charming concept and the fast paced plot makes it all the more enjoyable! The book was bigger than most middle grade fiction I've read in a while and I do admit, there were parts that could be called unnecessary. The book could have been shortened, if that's ideal for the intended readers, but somehow I still found it to be a quick, breezy read.

The characters are quite Harry Potter-esque (which, coming from me, is a huge compliment) - people you instantly identify yourself with, or better yet, characters who are bookish doppelgangers of people you know in real life! Lizzy is an endearingly spirited character, bold and funny, a little headstrong and very literary. Sammy is great too and Jonathan, well, he's something else. I think it's best to discover them all on your own and I suggest you go grab yourself a copy of this book right now, right here!

(Coming up soon: A featured post by Ally Malinenko about none other than the Bard himself.)

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Champions of Power (Age of the Aura # 1) by Samuel Odunsi Jr.

I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Summary: "There was no other name for the Blessed Galaxy. After being gifted with the Auras, five great powerhouses of celestial creation, the title was a suitable fit. While harnessing such energies, the governing bodies have ruled their respected reaches of the Galaxy for a number of millennia, but now they face the threat of an inevitable calamity that could shake the lives of everyone, caused by one of the five Auras.

After accepting a sudden promotion, a devout man of science, named Lowen Sars, decides to take on the burden of saving the Galaxy’s people after he learns of the calamity, but soon realizes that the role of a hero was a calling not meant for him. In his process of self-discovery, Lowen inadvertently begins the fateful saga of not only the Blessed Galaxy but also the kingdom in possession of the corrupt Aura, and especially its two young heirs of the throne."

My thoughts: The book had a rather abrupt beginning, with someone that I assumed would be one of the lead characters suddenly getting killed off in a rather violent fashion. It was probably meant to shock and hold me in, but it somehow just left me altogether confused. The plot was rather haphazard, a little disconnected in place and the characters weren't developed enough, I found it oddly difficult to care about them. The worlds, the ideas of Auras were all very imaginative, unique (no stereotypes at all!) but I would have definitely liked to know a lot more about them.

What I really appreciated about the book was the style of writing. The language was proper, in a good way, with little slang, no glaring errors, no teen-talk and the brisk, matter-of-fact-ly tone was very effective. The descriptions were apt and what the book lacked in plot and character arcs, it made up for in the occasional dry humour and good imagery. The writing was particularly nice for a debut and a pleasant change from the breezy way of writing most authors these days have!

I don't like books that are built in such a way as to assure that people would read the sequel: this book didn't have what I'd call a cliffhanger ending, but it left questions in my head and loose ends, that would tempt me as a reader to pick up the next book. I wish the book felt more... complete, because this was a big turn off.

It was a well thought out book, what it didn't have were the finishing touches. It was quite good, but it could have been better. Whenever the sequel is written, I'll make it a point to read it (which is why the writers must do it, anyway!) and I hope to find then a more developed story - such a good writer must be able to write a much finer plot!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Paying Piper & Castles in the Air by Ilana Waters

I remember saying that Ilana Waters had a very Diana Wynne Jones-ish writing style in my review of The Adventures of Stanley Delacourt, a middle grade fantasy novel. That impression was only strengthened when  I read a couple more of the author's stories. 

Paying Piper (or "What Happened in Hamelin Town")

The Pied Piper of Hamelin was never my favourite story. I thought it was rather odd as a child, and when I learn that the piper symbolized plague, I thought it was horrible. So, I was really looking forward to reading a retelling of the story by Ilana Waters, whose Diana Wynne Jones-esque novel The Adventures of Stanley Delacourt made me wish I was a kid again! Needless to say, I loved Paying Piper (or What Happened in Hamelin Town.)

I'm sure many people who are, like me, just children at heart will love this story just as much as I did. The quirky, conversational tone of writing reminded me of my childhood favourites, Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl! The story has the kind of playful humour a child may like with the talking rats and the constantly irritated people and a subtler wit that makes it a lot more than just another children's story. Ilana has a way of describing things so well that you wonder if you're actually watching the story, in this case a Disney cartoon; very apt and very imaginative. She has given the story a pleasing twist, making it about kindness and second chances. What I loved is how it never seems like a retelling, but a tale that she came up with herself! The people in the story have so much character and so do the rats, which must have been hard to do, because most of the Grimm stories that I ever read were full of stock characters; here, even the stout miserly mayor seemed more than just that!

Among other things, this story will also be your chance to try a new author before you move on to her longer works. And I'm certain, as soon as you've finished this, you will find yourself rushing off to buy The Adventures of Stanley Delacourt! Read this great little story here

Castles in the Air - A Novella of Hartlandia

Do you see that cover? I fell in love with it the moment I saw it. I could spend pages describing just how amazingly beautiful, magical, fun it looks, but I think you can see that yourself. Interestingly, the novella itself is just as innovative, magical and fun!

Summary: Ten-year-old Wikkley McStag and his family are born farmers, happy to work the land. But then they - and other royal subjects - are forced to buy strange, useless machines. Money starts running out. Now the McStags have two days before they lose their farm. As the eldest child, Wikkley must journey to the palace and ask for the king’s help. His loved ones only hope his reckless nature won’t get him in trouble once he’s there!

When Wikkley arrives at the palace, he finds an unnecessary castle being built right into the sky. The same thing is happening in a neighboring kingdom. When royal foolishness leads to disaster, it’s up to Wikkley to save several lives. Will his recklessness finally come in handy? Or will it mean the end of his family, his farm, and possibly... his life?

My thoughts: Castles in the Air is a pleasure to read. It is written in a conversational manner, like someone is actually reading you a story and you can feel the voice and tone in the words. It's fabulous. There's also a lot of adventure and whole new ideas introduced in every chapter. The world Ilana has created is magical and just absurd enough!

Being a novella, it is swift paced and you could easily gulp it down within hours! Wikkley is very adorable and makes a perfect hero for a middle grade fantasy - he is kind and caring, bold and a little reckless, not to mention, very funny! I think most readers will find it very easy to relate to him and his way of looking at things adds much of the humour to the tale. The story, like any children's book, has a moral; it teaches about family and being brave and doing what it takes. However, though meant for children, the novella could ideally be enjoyed by anyone. At least, everyone who has a little child somewhere in them, who would appreciate such a playful story as this one!

You can buy the book right here. If middle grade fantasy isn't really your genre, you can certainly try this paranormal romance by the same author.

House of Cards by Ilana Waters

I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Summary: Eighteen-year-old Sherry has just begun her newly independent life in Paris when she is kidnapped by a group of vampires. They hold her hostage in the House of Cadamon, their catacomb lair beneath the city, ruled with an iron fist by a leader known as 'the Master.'

The only thing keeping Sherry alive is her ability to tell vampire fortunes through tarot cards, a task she is forced to perform night after night. She finds an unlikely ally in Lucas, a four-hundred-year-old reluctant blood drinker who is as much a prisoner of Cadamon as she is.

Things get even more complicated when Sherry and Lucas begin falling for each other—hard. Will they be able to keep Sherry alive long enough for them both to escape the House of Cadamon? Or will the Master and his band of evil minions succeed in controlling the lives of the young lovers—by whatever means necessary?

With its breathtaking Parisian setting, fast-moving plot, and strong-willed heroine, this paranormal romance will keep you spellbound!

My Thoughts: When I found this book waiting for me in my inbox this morning, it occurred to me that I had about three hours before I had to leave. Obviously, I spent my time devouring the entire book. It's your typical paranormal romance (though I admit, I'm still not quite familiar with the genre), albeit not too typical. The sexy, troubled vampire has become an overly used stock character lately, and I was sorry to see that Ilana has made her lead (Lucas) little more. You also have the Master and his followers, including a puppy-dog loyal female vampire and I guess that all does sound very typical. I just think that dismissing this book with a simple, "I don't like vampire romances." would be silly; while it does have some of the stereotypes, it is unique in many ways!

First, when reading these new style of teen / YA paranormal romances, I've always noticed how fine these girls seem to be with the idea of vampires, the knowledge that the guys they so love are supernatural creatures. It all seems highly unrealistic, and so, incredibly shallow - by giving Sherry a certain vague idea beforehand of the existence of the supernatural, inexplicable abilities of her own, Ilana has managed to make Sherry's experience at the House of Cadamon and her reactions very convincing. I really liked Sherry. I liked the idea that the reason for her loneliness, her feeling lost is explained and it couldn't be more realistic - losing her sister to an accident, not having managed to let go of her even after six years. The emotions are dealt with wonderfully and it is more than 'just another teenage problem'. The romance that slowly develops between Lucas and Sherry is not just out of attraction or infatuation but has more to do with finding someone to be close to and finally moving on. It's one of the reasons why I liked the book.

Lastly, I have to admit, I still do like Ilana's middle grade fantasy a lot more, but probably only because it's more of a my kind of genre. Obviously, the one thing that stood out to me the most in this book, was the writing style. It is very fluid and the descriptions of Paris are fantastic. The dialogue is really well written, every character has their own way of talking and it tells a lot about them. But most of all, the writing is just delightfully witty. It genuinely makes you laugh! And who wouldn't want to read such a book? Grab your copy right here!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Guest Post by author Tim Rowland (Creatures Features) on Writing About Animals

About the author: Tim Rowland is an award-winning columnist at Herald-Mail Media in Hagerstown, Maryland. He has written for numerous history and outdoor magazines and news syndicates nationwide. He has also authored several books, most recently Strange and Obscure Stories of the Civil War.

This fabulous little post on writing about animals gives a glimpse of what the book has to offer. Make sure you read this, along with the book review and buy yourself a copy right now!

Writing and writing about animals are two different things. I say this because in traditional writing it is the author who must initiate the creative process and drive the text. When writing about animals, the author is free to disengage and allow the critter to dictate the terms.

For example, as I write this, or try to, there is a diminutive, six pound Siamese who has developed a fascination with the electronic letters and darting cursor that appear on the computer screen. And she has come to the conclusion that they need to be killed.

Strangely, this does not contribute to my near-term writing efficiency, although it does solve the long-term problem of what to write about. Writers make deals with the devil all the time, and if no devil is handy a cat will make a plausible facsimile.

The only equal to a cat in terms of seeking publicity is a goat. To a goat, acting out is sport, a way to grab attention and pass the time. That’s another love-hate situation for a writer, who wags his finger sternly at the bad behavior before going inside and putting it into print. So when a goat, for example, walks up to a section of fence I am repairing, reaches up and knocks a hammer off of a fence post just for spite with that “what are you going to do about it” look, it is simultaneously maddening and profitable.

Most other animals are entertaining not by choice, but by circumstance. A cow, for example, may blunder her way into an entertaining situation, although she clearly does not realize she has done anything funny. A couple of years ago, I brought a young bull to our hobby farm to service the ladies, but he made a poor effort of it. The youngster kept trying to mount the wrong end of the cow and it wasn’t long before the cows decided they wanted no children out of a male that stupid. I told the bull not to feel bad, I’d been in that situation myself.

I am convinced, however, that most animals have senses of humor. Every equestrian has been the butt of a horse joke at one time or another. To illustrate, horses will stand at the far end of the pasture and refuse to come when called. Se we will walk all the way across the pasture to get them, at which point they will gallop past us and stand at the gate. They think this hilarious.

I don’t. But then again, as a writer I do have certain outlets that others do not. For on our homestead, no animal atrocity ever goes to waste.


Read more reviews and try your luck to win a copy on the Creatures Features Tour Page

Monday, March 18, 2013

Creatures Features by Tim Rowland

About the author: Tim Rowland is an award-winning columnist at Herald-Mail Media in Hagerstown, Maryland. He has written for numerous history and outdoor magazines and news syndicates nationwide. He has also authored several books, most recently Strange and Obscure Stories of the Civil War.

About the book: When Tim Rowland’s earlier book of his animal essays, ALL PETS ARE OFF, was published, readers immediately clamored for more. Their preference for animal stories over the political columns Tim’s also known for is understandable: animals are way more fun to read about than politicians. Especially now. So here’s a new volume of over 75 columns, from the introduction to the farm of bovines Cleopatra and Heifertiti, the Belted Galloway beauties, to the further antics of Hannah the English Bulldog and Juliet the tiny Siames - and of course, more of the joyful bouvier des Flandres named Opie - that’s sure to provide loads of smiles and even outright guffaws.

My thoughts: Chaotic, confusing, hilarious. Being an animal lover, I was looking forward to reading this book. But at the same time, I've read many non-fiction / fiction accounts of animals, which were too personified and didn't seem real; so I wasn't sure what to expect from the book. My first thought as I read the book was: wow, he really gets animals. Every creature has a quirky, characteristic personality, very different from a human's but very striking. Considering I was only ever acquainted with the various personalities of cats and dogs, I found these essays about all sorts of farm animals full of surprises. 

The thing I appreciated the most is that the book can be started at any random point in the middle, and the tales don't have to be read in order. It's the perfect book to take along on a holiday, quick, breezy and funny. Of course, all the fun aside, it's also informative, touching and insightful. The only thing that freaked me out is the idea that all the anonymous animals, whose curious eccentricities we never get to know, are sent off to the slaughterhouse - it has a strange morbidity to it, that you just need to be ready to overlook.

I liked the conversational tone of the book. The adventures on the farm are endlessly entertaining. I found myself constantly chuckling and copying down things that I wanted to share with my fellow animal lovers. Halfway into the book I realized I had literally copied down almost everything I'd read, so I scrapped the idea and decided to tell everyone and anyone who has ever known an animal: You would love the book! I could guarantee a pet-owner a lot of fun and the pet a huge "I love you soo much." and a bowlful of treats, which mine received once I was done reading this.

Read more reviews and try your luck to win a copy on the Creatures Features Tour Page

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Babi Makers by Christopher Geoffrey McPherson

I got this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

This was probably the most absurd book I have read in a while. I'm still debating whether it was absurd in a good way.

I loved the cover of the book - how very science fiction-ey. It immediately grabbed my attention. You know how some say the first few pages of the book decide its fate - if it is slow, dull or too drastic, it probably wouldn't hold everyone's attention. I think The Babi Makers will have no problem keeping people involved right at the very start. The first eight pages are spent describing a lavish meal - with warm, brothy noodle soup and crispy, cool, delicious carrots (I don't even like carrot but these sounded amazing!) You start to really get into the whole thing and then out of nowhere, the people eat a 'babi'.

The summary provided by the author didn't warn me that the book was going to contain cannibalism. Here's why it's there. Once upon a time, some sort of meteor hit the earth and destroyed everything on it. The few people who survived The Fall ate whatever animals and plants were remaining. The ground was too damaged to produce any new plants. Soon the people began to eat each other, to keep from dying of starvation, until soon they discovered that they could make and eat babies. And we reach the present, in Nove, a planet where the making of babies is a major industry. To control population, only a few selected people are allowed to raise babies, called "Life Babies" and the rest are eaten. Babies aren't exactly given birth to either, but produced in factories and men and women are from a certain age onward "milked" for their genetic material.

The descriptions are gruesome, as I suppose they were intended, and painfully graphic. I can stomach the goriest of things, horror or otherwise, but this was an entirely new level of Yuck! for me. Eating babies? How can anyone even come up with that? I liked the concept and implementation of the new world, controlled reproduction and all that - but why this? If the only purpose of it was to shock people, stir things up, it worked, I guess, but not for the best. The whole idea of cutting, cooking and eating babies, introduced so early on and described in such excruciating detail, was a huge turn off.

The author has clearly created a very intricate world, I liked discovering it slowly, diving deeper every ten pages. The extensive chapters, describing the long history of the planet and its current working, presented as lessons the Life Babies were taught by scholastic manager Atreus were my favourite parts of the book.

Overall, it was a fairly well written book, weirdly fascinating in places, concise, immensely imaginative and with full, developed characters. I guess whether you might like it just depends on how far you are able to open your mind!