Wednesday, July 24, 2013

I loved it, but...

"An immigrant tale that combines elements of Jewish and Arab folk mythology, Helene Wecker's dazzling debut novel tells the story of two supernatural creatures who arrive separately in New York in 1899.

Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life to by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic. When her master-the husband who commissioned her-dies at sea on the voyage from Poland, she is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York harbor in 1899.

Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire, born in the ancient Syrian desert. Trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, he is released accidentally by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop. Though he is no longer imprisoned, Ahmad is not entirely free-an unbreakable band of iron around his wrist binds him to the physical world.

Overwhelmed by the incessant longing and fears of the humans around her, the cautious and tentative Chava-imbued with extraordinary physical strength-fears losing control and inflicting harm. Baptized by the tinsmith who makes him his apprentice, the handsome and capricious Ahmad-an entity of inquisitive intelligence and carefree pleasure-chafes at monotony and human dullness. Like their immigrant neighbors, the Golem and the Jinni struggle to make their way in this strange new place while masking the supernatural origins that could destroy them."
Taken from

Once I decide I like a book, I turn around a nit-pick at the one thing that didn't make sense to me. I really did enjoy this book. I loved the idea of the main characters; a golem and a jinni and I loved the setting, 1899 New York. Just from reading the blurb, I knew it would a wonderful book, and it was!

It is a slow-moving book that took thought and pause while reading it, which I enjoyed. Since I spend most of my time reading YA novels it was nice to read a book where I actually had to think and learn. I thought the setting was perfect. In 1899 immigrants were flooding New York and little neighborhoods were established that reflected the different places from the old world that they were travelling from.

One of the things that bothered me were the characters in Little Syria. Why were they Christians and not Muslims? The Jinn are a tradition that comes out of Arabic legend and are mentioned in the Qur'an so why were the people that the Jinni was surrounded by Christians, or more specifically Maronite? This prompted a search (yes, mostly Google and Wikipedia---don't tell my students!) and apparently Little Syria had a large population of Maronite Immigrants fleeing their oppression from the Ottoman Empire. That was an interesting piece of information, why wasn't it in the book? In a book as intricate and descriptive as this book is, this should have been mentioned. It is possible that it was mentioned briefly and I missed it but there should have been an explanation.

This then begs the question, why did the Jinn end up in Little Syria and not some other area with a more dominant Muslim population? When I first saw the title the Golem and the Jinni my mind immediately went to Jewish mythology versus Arab/Muslim mythology. Perhaps there would be religious or cultural conflict that we are so used to seeing between these groups of people. By putting the Jinn in a mostly Christian/Maronite group the conflict I was expecting was not there. Was this a deliberate action from the author and if so, why?

I thought the larger philosophical or more universal idea of the book to be very engaging and thought-provoking. Chava was created to serve a master but she was able to put aside what she was created to be in order to live in this world among people. Near the conclusion of the book the Jinni was willing to try and live in this world as best he could, while the man who created Chava had refused for generations to defeat his bad nature and work for good.

This was a great book that made me look up information on my own, it kept my attention and ended with hope. A wonderful read that I highly recommend.

4/5 stars

Friday, July 19, 2013

Bomb: The Race to Build-and steal- the World's Most Dangerous Weapon

Bomb by Steve Sheinkin 

In December of 1938, a chemist in a German laboratory made a shocking discovery: When placed next to radioactive material, a Uranium atom split in two. That simple discovery launched a scientific race that spanned 3 continents. In Great Britain and the United States, Soviet spies worked their way into the scientific community; in Norway, a commando force slipped behind enemy lines to attack German heavy-water manufacturing; and deep in the desert, one brilliant group of scientists was hidden away at a remote site at Los Alamos. This is the story of the plotting, the risk-taking, the deceit, and genius that created the world's most formidable weapon. This is the story of the atomic bomb.


I really enjoyed reading this book. My only knowledge of the atomic bomb was the effects of dropping it. In history class we would learn about how the bomb affected the people living in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We would learn about the lasting effects this had with our relations with the Soviet Union. I remember stories from my grandfather who was drafted in 1945 at the young age of 18 and preparing for the invasion of Japan. In his eyes he would have died, instead he went for part of the occupation. Regardless of what people think of the bomb or how they interpret the decision to drop them, this book starts at the beginning, with physicists around the globe who were playing around with atoms. The author told the story of how scientists came up with these ideas and how they went about testing them in a way that young adults (and adults who got a D in physics) could comprehend. There is a large cast of characters that are talked about in this book. There are some pictures in between each of the fours parts of the book with a short description of who they are. Even thought the author did a good job of reminding us who everyone was when it was needed I would have liked a biography page or two that had all of the people mentioned with a little more information about them. Since this is a book written for middle and high school readers this would be helpful. I really appreciated the short chapters, it helped contribute to the movement of the story. The chapters kept shifting our focus to the scientists and then to the spies and added to the excitement. You almost forget that what they are creating will change the world forever.

4/5 stars!

Book Review: Feed

Feed by Mira Grant

The year was 2014. We had cured cancer. We had beaten the common cold. But in doing so we created something new, something terrible that no one could stop. The infection spread, virus blocks taking over bodies and minds with one, unstoppable command: FEED. Now, twenty years after the Rising, bloggers Georgia and Shaun Mason are on the trail of the biggest story of their lives - the dark conspiracy behind the infected. The truth will get out, even if it kills them.

Ah, zombies.  Here is one pop culture phenomenon that I just can't really buy into.  Not that I'm opposed to zombie stuff, mind you.  It's just not my go-to subgenre.  Lest you think I'm a snob, I want to point out that I voluntarily went to see 10000 B.C in theaters and I have an unhealthy collection of guilty-pleasure Jane Austen rewrites.  I'm not "too good" for any genre.
It's just that zombies, while they have the potential to be genuinely scary and creepy, seem like a one-trick pony.  There might be shuffle-groan zombies, there might be agile-strong zombies, but there's little additional depth to be plumbed. 

And yet I read some reviews by other bloggers and readers that said the Newsflesh trilogy is crazy well-written and worth the read.

Was it?

At the moment I'm inclined to say "yes."

The plot - a conspiracy about the provenance of the zombie virus - is truly engaging, especially when slowly uncovered by a group of young adults working as the blog-based news team for an up-and-coming presidential candidate.  The main character, Georgia, is well-constructed with a healthily suspicious and snarky nature.  For good reasons, she doesn't really trust anyone other than her brother Shaun and lives in frequent fear for her life, just like the rest of the world.  Her entire professional life revolves around her blog and she knows the cost of such a transitory and fickle career.

There are truly tense moments:  burst of action inserted rudely into otherwise prosaic events.  Zombie attacks, terrorist plots, unexpected deaths and so on.  Of course, without spoiling anything, I have to say that the final climax made my jaw drop.  I probably should have seen it coming, but I just didn't.  At all.

By the end of the book, the storyline had me hooked and I had to know how it ended.  However, throughout the book, there were many points at which I was tempted to put it down because I was tired about reading about blood tests and how they were administered and how many they had to complete.  I didn't care about Blog Administration 101.  These are the kind of things that become increasingly annoying once you notice them.  Just when I would be getting fed up with reading about non-crucial plot details, something exciting would happen and I would be hooked for another 30 pages.

After reading spoileriffic reviews of the next two books, I can't say that I'm too eager to finish the story, but this book is probably worth reading just for the climax alone.  You can judge if you want to finish the trilogy for yourself.

4/5 stars.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Audiobook Review: Breadcrumbs

Title:  Breadcrumbs
Author:  Anne Ursu

Once upon a time, Hazel and Jack were best friends. They had been best friends since they were six, spending hot Minneapolis summers and cold Minneapolis winters together, dreaming of Hogwarts and Oz, superheroes and baseball. Now that they were eleven, it was weird for a boy and a girl to be best friends. But they couldn't help it - Hazel and Jack fit, in that way you only read about in books. And they didn't fit anywhere else.

And then, one day, it was over. Jack just stopped talking to Hazel. And while her mom tried to tell her that this sometimes happens to boys and girls at this age, Hazel had read enough stories to know that it's never that simple. And it turns out, she was right. Jack's heart had been frozen, and he was taken into the woods by a woman dressed in white to live in a palace made of ice. Now, it's up to Hazel to venture into the woods after him. Hazel finds, however, that these woods are nothing like what she's read about, and the Jack that Hazel went in to save isn't the same Jack that will emerge. Or even the same Hazel.

This is one of those books that I should have loved far more than I actually did.  The writing is beautiful, the author is perfectly able to evoke a feeling of loneliness and desperation, and there are so many quotable passages that I lost track of them all. 


While reading (listening) to the story, I was so distracted by the overwrought emotions and dark tone of the whole story that I kept waiting for something to happen.  Right from the blurb, any reader knows that Hazel and Jack's friendship is going to be tested and that some fairy tale elements are going to appear at some point.  Yet it takes about half the book for that to actually happen and when it does, it's almost a let-down.

The fairy tale elements are artfully woven into the story and the modernization of Andersen's "The Snow Queen" is deftly handled.  In this terrifying world of magic and shapeshifters, there are people from our world who lost their way and, for various reasons, cannot find their way back to a mundane existence.   These lost souls serve as both guides and obstacles in Hazel's quest to find her friend, all of them forming some sort of warning about making the wrong choices in this dangerous world. 

I don't know what I was expecting at the end, but the climax and resolution felt hurried and incomplete.  It wasn't unsatisfying, but I'm not sure that I can say it's exactly satisfying, either.  

The audiobook narrator did a perfect job of setting a morose tone throughout, conveying the despair and isolation that Hazel feels.  While he's a good narrator, I can say that there is only so much despair and desperation I can stand before I just wanted the book to be over.

Incredibly quotable, beautifully written, and not-quite-fulfilling.  The dark overtones might be too much for young readers and the subject might be too young for adults. 

3 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Battle of the Books! Tarnished vs. Kiss of Steel

Here it is - the first ever Battle of the Books on Wandering Meander.

As described in a previous post, I have decided to pit two similar books against one another and see who comes out on top.

This match-up is:
Tarnished by Karina Cooper versus Kiss of Steel by Bec McMaster

Now for the points of comparison:
1. Main Character
2. Supporting Cast
3. World-building
4. Pacing
5. Plot Development
6. Plot Resolution
7. Style or Use of Language

1. Main Character.
 Cherry St Croix is the heroine of Tarnished, an opium-addicted former pickpocket who is struggling to show her face in society after her parent's untimely demise and despite her father's reputation as a mad scientist, all while leading a double life as an underworld collector (bounty hunter).  Honoria Todd is the heroine of Kiss of Steel, a young woman on the run from a vampiric nobleman, forced to resort to seeking the help of an underworld boss to save her family from starvation or worse.  While Honoria was fun to follow along with on her romantic adventures, I have to say that Cherry, with her drug addiction and "take no prisoners" attitude was more interesting.  Not only that, but Cherry carried the story herself, not sharing the "screen time" with a male lead.  Winner: Tarnished.

2. Supporting Cast
Tarnished has a broad array of characters, from Cherry's servant-friends, to the society matrons that snub her to her underworld allies.  Kiss of Steel has much the same, but the numbers are smaller.  More time is spent developing each one as an individual and drawing the reader's interest into them.  This is especially important since some of the supporting cast are the leads in the second book in the series.  While I appreciated the dichotomy between Tarnished's upper crust and the lower dregs, I think the supporting cast from Kiss of Steel was more interesting. Winner:  Kiss of Steel

3. World-building
Both of these adventures are steampunk.  Kiss of Steel introduces vampire nobility and lethal werewolves into a London that never existing and tosses some automatons and kiss-ass weapons into the mix.  Tarnished took it a step further and made the London a place that never existed at all, where the upper crust have took that a little too literally and created a raised platform that they live on while the rest of the world lives below in a permanent cloud of pollution and mist (thereby creating the need for goggles and other steampunky things).  Airships carry people from level to level and there are in-depth discussions about "the aether."  There are creepy labs and strange technology and mad scientists.  All in all, I think Tarnished did a better job with creating a steampunk world.  Winner:  Tarnished
4. Pacing
Both of these books are the first in a series, but only Tarnished really felt like it.  Kiss of Steel jumped onto its plot-train right away in the first chapter and didn't look back.  Tarnished took a while to find its footing, jumping back and forth between social concerns in ballrooms and back to crime-life in the underworld.  The book is almost a third of the way through by the time the heroine actually does what the book blurb says.  There was plenty of action in both books, but Kiss of Steel made it seem like it was advancing the story, while Tarnished spent a little more time meandering through the world (well-built though it was) and introducing characters who seemed more like diversions and red herrings.  Winner:  Kiss of Steel

5. Plot Development
Kiss of Steel is clearly advertised as more of a romance than Tarnished is, so I'm not going to fault it for having romance be the cornerstone of its plot arc.  Tarnished takes its time getting going, but once it's on the rails, there is plenty to keep the reader interested, and even the society-underworld split is interesting in itself.  Without spoiling anything, I will confess I laughed out loud when both books used the exact same plot twist.  Winner:  Tie

6. Plot Resolution
Here's where being the start of a series can be a disadvantage.  Kiss of Steel had its characters meet, face difficulties and fall in love all by the end of the book.  Tarnished introduced quite a few characters and set up two of them as potential love interests, but one of them fell off the pages somewhere and the other wasn't a fully realized character by the final pages.  One major mystery was resolved - sort of - but another was left wide open for the next book to pick up.  In the end, I prefer a somewhat neater package.  Winner:  Kiss of Steel

7. Style or Use of Language
Neither of these books are going to be the book that pushes Steampunk into the massive mainstream.  They are both perfectly acceptable book from a writing standpoint.  That being said, Cherry's catchphrase "Allez hop!" was annoying by the second time she said it.  Kiss of Steel had better action scenes - both the bloody and the sexy kind.  Winner:  Kiss of Steel

By a score of 4 to 2, our winner is:

This was harder than I thought it would be, because both books were enjoyable, albeit in different ways.  I almost purchased the sequel to BOTH books when I saw them at the store.  Try either of them - I will certainly be continuing with both series as soon as I can get my hands on them.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Audiobook Review: Doll Bones

Doll Bones by Holly Black
Audiobook narrator - Nick Podehl

Zach, Poppy and Alice have been friends for ever. They love playing with their action figure toys, imagining a magical world of adventure and heroism. But disaster strikes when, without warning, Zach’s father throws out all his toys, declaring he’s too old for them. Zach is furious, confused and embarrassed, deciding that the only way to cope is to stop playing . . . and stop being friends with Poppy and Alice. But one night the girls pay Zach a visit, and tell him about a series of mysterious occurrences. Poppy swears that she is now being haunted by a china doll – who claims that it is made from the ground-up bones of a murdered girl. They must return the doll to where the girl lived, and bury it. Otherwise the three children will be cursed for eternity...

 Going by the blurb, I had expected this book to have more than a passing resemblance to Goosebumps - pseudo-supernatural scary parts mixed in a with a middle grade adventure.  I can't say I was truly disappointed in the story, since "what I expected" isn't a legal contract to a book's contents.  I can say that the story is solid, if not what I thought it was going to be.
The characters are clearly all going through the growing pains of middle school while still holding on to that magical part of childhood where imagination is just as entertaining as any game.  The three friends have made up a grand storyline with different action figure - a repainted GI Joe figurine, a pirate - and they made up glorious continuing adventures for them.  It's really a throwback to my long-ago middle school days and a pleasant nostalgic expedition.
All three have well-defined characteristic, given that the narrative is handled entirely through Zach's point of view.  Poppy is a bit of a dreamer, an occasional liar, and definitely a latchkey kid who holds herself together through the stories she and her friends tell.  Alice is a do-gooder (in the best way) and wants to follow the rules.  Zach doesn't want to look stupid, he wants to keep his friends, and he wants to please his teammates and parents.  Now that he's in middle school, he's finding that he might have to disappoint someone and it's a painful realization. 
There is a potentially terrifying story of a possessed doll which has a decidedly "Chucky" vibe.  I think this was the biggest let-down of the story.  There were definitely creepy parts of the story, don't get me wrong.  There were a few times where I honestly thought that something genuinely ghost-possession-poltergeist was about to happen, but other than setting a bleak and shifty mood, they didn't really pan out.  There were just was many moments when I thought "Poppy is just lying about this whole thing" which really rather spoiled any building-horror-momentum that the story had going.
By the time the resolution appears, I wasn't certain how the story was going to end, but I was largely happy with the result.  This book ends up being as much as coming-of-age tale as a supernatural spookfest, and I suppose that's alright.
The audiobook narrator was fine.  He made each of the voices more or less distinct and after a while I didn't notice - which I think is exactly what you should aim for in an audiobook narrator.

If you're looking for a scary ghost story, this is probably going to disappoint.  If you're looking for a bildungsroman with a creepy twist, this is probably more up your alley.
3.5 stars.