Saturday, February 01, 2014

2013 - The Lost Cannonball Year, Part I

As I mentioned in my previous post, I wasn't able to do book reviews last year like I had planned, but I still read many books.

So, as part of getting organized for Cannonball 6 , here are short ratings of some of the books I read in 2013.

1. Sweep Series Books 1-15 (also known as The Wicca Series in some countries) by Cate Tiernan (audiobooks and ebooks)

Sweep: Book of Shadows by Cate Tiernan cover
I started this series in 2012 with the audiobooks (for the first couple or so) and then continued with the ebooks in 2013 to finish the whole 15 book series.  The audiobooks really set things up well for defining the characters and I continued to keep that voice in my head while reading the later books.   I'm not quite sure it would have been quite so good without those at the beginning.

These books were short on description and vocabulary, but were fun, quick reads.  For me, they blur together more like really long chapters, rather than completely separate books.  They combined the usual teen issues of fitting in and sexuality with discovering your own identity and abilities - in this case, some paranormal ones.  I liked that as the main character was discovering her witch heritage, her Catholic parents were not made out to be stereotypically stupid or rigid, nor the teenager overly rebelious and disrespectful.  It is a loving family.  And likewise, the lesbian aunt isn't the stereotypical "gay", but rather just part of the family. 

Book #7, The Calling was the weak one out of the group and really was just a set up for Book #8, Changeling.  But, I still recommend that you read them all, and in order, to fully appreciate the story.

I was sorry that they ended when they did, but glad that the last book Night's Child jumps ahead into the future to give a bit of closure...but I still would have liked more.

4 stars for the series as a whole

- x - 

2. Virals and Seizure by Kathy Reiches (audiobooks)

Virals by Kathy Reichs cover
These are Books #1 and #2 of a juvenile/young adult series about Tory Brennan who is niece of the forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan from Kathy's more adult books, her Temperance Brennan (Bones) series.

I haven't yet read any of the Bones series to compare how Kathy's style translates to a younger audience level.  Overall, they were OK.  I liked the first book better, although both got a little repetitive and fell back on the over-used idea that teens never learn and will keep doing the same thing to get into the same trouble.  Some parts were a bit too corny for my taste too and I thought that Seizure tried too hard to get into a popular theme (pirates), rather than focusing on the uniqueness of the characters.

As an audiobook, at least the first one included one of the few really good uses for sound effects that I have heard.  All too often, they are just a distraction when in an audiobook. (I think it might have been dropped for the 2nd one - I can't remember now.)

3 stars for Virals; 2 stars for Seizure

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Catching Up 2012 (what I meant to do early 2013)

OK, so as you can tell, 2013 didn't go so well for the book review thing.  Grrr.  It turned out that I didn't have access to a laptop for most of the year, so in the limited times when I did, I had too many other things to catch up on even though I read many books.

I will try to get back into things now with Cannonball 6 .  I've signed up for a half-cannonball (26 reviews).

But first, so my mind, and some rough notes are cleared, I will give a short rating to some of the books I can still remember from 2012 and 2013 that I didn't get to.  Some of the best ones, I will leave and hope to do a quick re-read this year to do a proper review.

From my 2012 list:

1.  Matched and Crossed (Matched Trilogy books 1 and 2) by Ally Condie (audiobooks)

Matched by Ally Condie, CD coverI listened to these after The Book Hoarding Dragon's review of Matched piqued my interest.  I was not disappointed.  I liked how Matched started out looking like a utopia vs. something like The Hunger Games.  It made the conflict between safety and freedom more thought-provoking and relevant for today's world.  So, mixed with the universal themes of young unrequited and forbidden love, there were more compelling ideas about rebellion and the importance of language and creativity needed to even form and communicate those ideas.

By the time we get to Crossed, we see the situation for the full dystopia, it really is.  I didn't like it quite as much as Matched, but still enjoyed it and want to read the conclusion.  (still waiting to see if my library will get the audiobook in)

5 stars to Matched; 4 stars to Crossed 

- x -

2.  The Scarecrow and His Servant and The Firework-Maker's Daughter by Philip Pullman (audiobooks)

The Scarecrow and His Servant by Philip Pullman, audio cover
I'm only putting these together because they are shorter (juvenile) books by Philip Pullman.  Very enjoyable with some good humour and, like his famous His Dark Materials Trilogy some good role-reversals and twists.  I especially liked the scarecrow character.

4 stars to both

- x -

3.  Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt (audiobook)

I hadn't read this before and only saw the 2002 movie trailers which looked like a paranormal teen romance.  This wasn't like that

Monday, February 04, 2013

2013 Book List

I'm going to try to keep a more accurate list of waiting-to-be-reviewed books this year for CBR5...and hopefully not let things get as out of control as last year, but considering the list I've already built up, it isn't the best start. :)

I'll be doing Cate Tiernan's Sweep series as one review when I finished with it.  I read the first five books last year and didn't get to reviews and they are such quick reads that I can't keep them separate and they seem more like parts of one big book to me.

The list in no particular order:

1. Sweep Series: Spellbound (#6), The Calling (#7), Changeling (#8) - Cate Tiernan (e-books)
2. Virals - Kathy Reiches (audio)
3. Seizure - Kathy Reiches (audio)
4. Od Magic - Patricia A. McKillip (audio)
5. The Eternal Ones - Kirsten Miller (audio)
6. A Conspiracy of Genes - Mark de Castrique (audio)
7. Catching Fire: The Hunger Games, Book 2 - Suzanne Collins (audio)
8. The Cat Who Went Into the Closet: The Cat Who Series, Book 15 - Lilian Jackson Braun (audio)
9. Bookmarked for Death: Booktown Mystery Series, Book 2 - Lorna Barrett (audio)
10. My Anecdotal Life - A Memoir - Carl Reiner (audio)
11. The Best Short Stories of Mark Twain - Mark Twain  (audio)
12. Echoes of the Fourth Magic - Chronicles of Ynis Aielle, Book 1 - R. A. Salvatore (audio)
13. Cinderella's Secret Diary: Lost (Book 1) - Ron Vitale

loopyker's #CBR5 Review #01: Cinderella's Secret Diary: Lost (Book 1) by Ron Vitale

Disclaimer: This was given as a free e-book to interested CBR5 readers. This in no way influences the outcome of my review.
I was excited to accept the free e-book of Cinderella's Secret Diary: Lost since both young adult fantasy and the retelling of fairy tales are amongst my favourite genres and I'm always happy to discover more. This story also includes a little taste of historical fiction - another of my favourites.
As the title suggests, this book is written in first person from the viewpoint of Cinderella's diary a few years after her marriage to the Prince. They are very far from living "happily ever after" at this time and Cinderella is very unhappy with her marriage and her whole life in the castle where she is under great pressure to produce an heir for the Royal family. She is dealing with big decisions about her life, marriage and motherhood. Hints of political intrigue around England and Napoleon are also entwined with the magical elements of fairies and witches.
It all sounds great to me in theory, but fell short of my hopes in practice.
Personally, I have kept a diary at different points in my life. I use the writing to get my emotions out and organize my thoughts. Regardless of my age at 16 or 40, they inevitably end up as venting about some heartbreak of unrequited love or conflicts with friends and family. They are an emotional release and not intended as writings that would interest anyone else. The full first half of this book has exactly that feel. While I could understand Cinderella's frustrations, I did not feel connected to her and didn't even like her. (Just as I wouldn't really expect anyone to like me much if all they knew of me were pages and pages of my internal venting!) It was mostly just depressing. It also kept the other characters very two dimensional since they didn't have voices of their own.
It takes a lot for me to stop reading a book once I've started - I always hope it will get better. That rarely happens, but in this case it did. For the second half of the book, while confusing at times, the story got fleshed out more as Cinderella is actually working on improving her life, instead of just complaining about it. She grows as a woman, learning about herself and learning a little about the world - both terrestrial and magical. But it still lacks much depth.
This improvement was enough that I am willing to continue onto the second book in the series, Stolen, which was also provided as a free e-book for review. If I wasn't already given it, I would not have gone to the second one though, and it will not be a high priority to get to in my list now.
I'm really not sure if younger readers would appreciate the book more or not. The author designates this books as suitable for ages 15 and up. I read a lot of juvenile and young adult fantasy and it is my opinion that a good book written for these ages can be enjoyed by anyone older too.  Lost just doesn't hold up to that for me and I suspect many experienced readers of any age will tire of it before they get to the second half. But, it may be suitable for young adults who just want an easy read.
On a technical note, Lost could use some proofreading to fix up some spelling and grammatical errors. I'm not too bothered by that kind of thing, but there were enough for me to easily notice. I'm not the type of reader who usually notices errors unless I'm thinking to look for them, so I probably missed many more. However, I have also seen much worse by other authors and don't think the average reader will be much distracted with the current level of errors.
There are also a couple of lines that at first look like typographical errors, but are only backwards writing. This may be confusing for some less experienced readers. It also means that those lines won't translate to an audiobook, if that possibility was ever considered in the future.
For those really interested in fairy tale retellings with strong heroines, my opinion is that your time is much better spent on some of my favourites by Robin McKinley:  Spindle's End   (Sleeping Beauty), Rose Daughter  (Beauty and the Beast) and The Outlaws of Sherwood   (Robin Hood).

Available in Kindle and paperback versions
Print Length: 197 pages

Saturday, January 05, 2013

loopyker’s #CBR4 Review #22: War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

I'm sure I'm not the only one whose only previous experience with H.G. Wells was the 2005 War of the Worlds movie  starring Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning and the character on Warehouse 13 .  While the movie was entertaining, it had the usual Hollywood dramatic scenes with the hero fighting to protect their family, where everything is frantic and full special effects.

With that in mind, I found the audiobook refreshing.  It has a much slower start than the movie.  The aliens don't just pop up out of the ground.  Strange objects, apparently from Mars, land on the earth and are later reveled to contain aliens - Martians.  We don't know at first if they are friendly or malicious.  They construct their tripod killing machines while people watch and wonder.

When the machines are operable, their destruction of humanity and civilization begins.  Of course, this is a time before cars, so people are fleeing by foot and horse and buggy and they don't have access to instant news or telephones like we do which makes for even more confusion.  Everyone is on their own.

One of the best parts is that the main character has no children and is not looking after any children.  I found this a nice surprise after so many of today's movies are made to manipulate our heart strings by making it all about the children.  Instead, the man has a wife, who he gets separated from in the early stages and spends most of the book not knowing if she is dead or alive.  The story is about his survival and the random people he encounters and how everyone is dealing with this stress of attack and survival differently.

I am very glad to have finally heard the original.  There is a reason why there are many adaptations of The War of the Worlds - it is just fundamentally a good and compelling story.  Some things are understandably dated, with the idea of "Martians" probably the most jarring to today's readers.  But other elements from its time period make it even better.  The 2005 movie gave us a very good visualization of how horrible the alien machines were which heightens the contrast between the alien technology and the simpler human resources.   When people are fleeing by horses, it makes their plight even more staggering than those experienced in the movie version.

I forget what the "enhanced" part of the audiobook was.  I assume there was music or sound effects at some point, but I can't remember if I felt they added or detracted from the story.  I just remember that I very much enjoyed the audiobook and story overall. 

The War of the Worlds [ENHANCED] Audiobook
Author:  H. G. Wells
Narrator: Simon Vance
Duration: 5 hours, 56 minutes
ISBN: 9781400192847
Release date: Jun 30, 2009  (original printed publishing 1898)

loopyker’s #CBR4 Review #19-21: Various mysteries by Elizabeth Peters

Elizabeth Peters (real name Barbara Mertz who also writes under Barbara Michaels), is best knows for her popular Amelia Peabody mysteries.  Those are amongst my favourite mystery books, but Elizabeth Peters has written many other books.  For this review I'm combining three of her other books that aren't any other series.  My feelings and criticisms are very similar for them all, so it seems pointless to write the same review three times.

While the Amelia Peabody series begins in the 1880's, these other books have contemporary settings, but are now out-dated having been published in 1968-1977.  Amelia is ahead of her time, but the women in The Jackal's Head, The Night of Four Hundred Rabbits and Devil-May-Care perhaps were modern in the early 1970's.  That's when I was born, so I'm not really sure.  However, for present day, they come across as annoying, old-fashioned and not as likeable as they probably were originally.  They fight against the constraints that society places on women, but then often end up falling into silly and frustrating stereotypes despite that.

I listened to The Jackal's Head most recently.  Looking it up, it is the oldest one, which probably explains why I liked it the least.  It takes place in Egypt, a setting familiar to Peabody fans.  A young women returns to the place that destroyed her father's reputation and led to his death.  She masquerades as a tourist but meets childhood friends as she searches for answers to clear his name and her cover is quickly blown.   The eventual archeological finds go much more into fantasy than what I can remember from the Peabody series.

Surprisingly, compared to the other Elizabeth Peters books I can recall, there are two attempted rape scenes in The Jackal's Head.  They are kind of left ambiguous as to how far the attacker actually got.  I think we are supposed to understand that he didn't succeed, but in the first she is left unconscious and bruised.  I do not like reading/listening to sexual violence in books, so this was disappointing for me and I wasn't expecting it after being familiar with so many of her other books (Peabody and otherwise).  I suspect that this is a product of the time it was written.  If I recall correctly, Anne McCaffrey included a rape in an early fantasy story published around this time which she later regretted and changed in a rewrite when the short story became a full-length novel.  (and I can recall being very disappointed in that since I read the original before knowing about the rewrite)

Anyone familiar with Peters books will not be surprised at the ending of this book either.

The setting is slightly different in The Night of Four Hundred Rabbits.   A young women travels to the pyramids in Mexico City in search of her missing father.  Again, this was disappointing for Peters.  There is a strong anti-drug message that is unexpected and lacks creativity.   I think this is one of the most dated of her older work and doesn't hold up well now.  I can't even remember anything remarkable enough to comment more specifically about now and don't even remember the ending.  I don't think I cared too much by then. 

Refreshingly, Devil-May-Care, takes place in Virginia.  A young, wealthy woman house-sits for her Aunt and gets some much needed time away from her fiancĂ©.  She unwittingly uncovers some secrets about the old families in the area - but she's not even sure what she found and everyone wonders if the strange things happening in and around the house are paranormal or real-world tactics to try to keep the secrets hidden.

Out of the three books, this was the most recently written, and you can tell.  It still is not as strong as many of her other books, and a little too predictable but definitely better than The Jackal's Head and The Night of Four Hundred Rabbits.  In all cases there were instances where I was just rolling my eyes at the talks the women have with themselves about how they are modern women, while still having such sexist attitudes. 

I don't recommend any of these if you have not already enjoyed Elizabeth Peters in other books.  I would only bother with The Jackal's Head and The Night of Four Hundred Rabbits if you really, really want to just read everything by Peters and don't expect much.

The audiobook quality and narration were good.  However, these might read better in print when you can skip quickly through the annoying parts.  

Author: Elizabeth Peters

Audiobooks:
Narrator: Grace Conlin
Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.

The Jackal's Head
Duration: 6 hours, 35 minutes
ISBN: 9781455100057
Release date: Mar 08, 2005  (first print book published 1968)

The Night of Four Hundred Rabbits
Duration:  7 hours, 46 minutes
ISBN:  9781433264900
Release date:  Nov 29, 2005  (first print book published 1971)

Devil-May-Care
Duration:  7 hours, 28 minutes
ISBN:  9781455101177
Release date: Jan 09, 2007  (first print book published 1977)

loopyker's #CBR4 Review #15-#18: His Dark Materials, Books 1-4 by Philip Pullman


I really wish I had gotten to this review when His Dark Materials was fresh in my mind, but some major things happened in my life right then so here it goes almost a year later!   I can't really separate the books well in my head now, so the review will be very general.  

I had reviewed The Lighthouse Land by Adrian McKinty shortly before listening to The Golden Compass, which was also my introduction to Philip Pullman  .  I take back what I said about wanting to continue The Lighhouse TrilogyThe Golden Compass reminded me what a really good book was!  There is no comparison and I will not waste my time listening to the rest of The Lighthouse Trilogy.  Since then I've listened to several Philip Pullman audiobooks and have enjoyed every one. 

His Dark Materials is about a young girl named Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon or "Pan" for short.  Pan acts like a pet, but you will learn in the book that it is much more than that.


In the The Golden Compass (note: in some countries it is titled Northern Lights), Lyra and Pan overhear some dark plans that begin them on a journey to discover the truth behind the disappearance of children throughout the land. Of course, there are many dangers for herself and others along the way.   With a heartbreaking, cliffhanger ending, I immediately went on to the next book.



The Subtle Knife follows Lyra and Pan as they travel to another world with a new friend, Will.  Here it is the adults who are in danger from forces that can attack at puberty.  Lyra and Will are all too close in age to that for comfort.  They find a tool that helps them travel through worlds to continue the quest to find the truth about the missing children and the dark things happening in multiple worlds.  Again I wanted to continue immediately to the next book which is the conclusion of the trilogy.


Lyra and Will's adventure continues with The Amber Spyglass.  They are learning a lot about life and love with all they've had to go through.  There is a war with the Kingdom of Heaven and they still have to find the the final pieces to the puzzle.   The conclusion is satisfying, but heartbreaking.   I was very emotional at this point in my own life, so I cried a whole lot with this. 

Overall, His Dark Materials is so good because it treats its readers like intelligent and curious individuals.  It doesn't dumb things down like so many things do nowadays for readers - and not just for children.  Philip Pullman questions authority and organized religion and the corruptions of power.  He wants his characters and readers to have a critical mind and to find the truth behind appearances.  His characters also learn a lot about the different kinds of love and sacrifice for the greater good.  I didn't really agree with the jealous love shown by the witches - I don't think we are supposed to, but it is still called "love" in the series, which is what I question.  But the themes of the other types: self-love, friendship and romantic love are more important and treated well.  And all of this is portrayed through unique worlds and characters.

I was very sorry for the Trilogy to end.  I wanted to hear more about the characters.  I looked forward to Lyra's Oxford, but it is only a short story about an adventure Lyra has two years after the end of The Amber Spyglass and didn't offer much.

The first three books are now amongst my favourite fantasy books.   I will certainly be rereading them and adding them to my permanent library.  The audiobooks were very well done with a terrific cast of narrators.   One of the best I've heard.

The series is recommended for ages 12 and up.  Each book has received several awards in both the print and audio versions.

His Dark Materials
Author: Philip Pullman
Narrated by Philip Pullman and a full cast
Publisher:  Listening Library

Book 1:  The Golden Compass
Duration: 10 hours, 33 minutes
ISBN: 9780739345122
Release date: Jun 27, 2006

Book 2: The Subtle Knife
Duration:  8 hours, 55 minutes
ISBN:      9780739350355
Release date: Aug 15, 2006

Book 3: The Amber Spyglass
Duration: 14 hours, 53 minutes
ISBN: 9780739345054
Release date: Jun 27, 2006

Book 4: Lyra's Oxford
Duration: 48 minutes
ISBN: 9780739353288
Release date: Oct 31, 2006