Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Summer Reading 2015 House of Thieves

House of Thieves: A Novel

Imagine that you are a successful architect with a comfortable life in the fashionable world of the Astors and other wealthy families in 1886 New York. Reputation is everything - there can be no hint of scandal, no deviation from the strict code of conduct, or the entire family will be ruined. Now suppose that you learn your son, who has just graduated from Harvard with a bright future ahead of him, has been indulging in a gambling habit that has him owing thousands to some very unsavory characters. What would you do to save his life? The lives of the entire family, as well as their social standing? In the case of John Cross, you will do whatever it takes, even if that means using your knowledge of the homes you have designed or visited as a guest to help those shady figures plan robberies. 

As readers travel deeper into the society scene and the coarser underworld of late nineteenth century, they will be amazed at the double standards, the lack of social programs for the poor, and the amazing number of secrets being kept by every member of the privileged upper class. Those who enjoy historical fiction with intrigue and danger mixed in, or who are fascinated with the class system seen in shows like "Downton Abbey" will enjoy this trip into the Big Apple's past. And I can honestly promise that the story ends with a monumental showdown.

This is written for YA and adult readers, and contains references to things like opium dens and bawdy houses not appropriate for a younger crowd. I read an advance copy provided by the publisher for review purposes.

Here is a video with the author:

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Summer Reading 2015 Make Me (Jack Reacher #20)


The old saying about "Curiosity killed the cat," almost became "Curiosity killed Jack." Traveling by train, Jack Reacher is intrigued by the name of a small town in Oklahoma called Mother's Rest. He gets off the train imagining that he will discover an historical marker, or monument, or museum dedicated to the mother in question. What he finds instead is a private investigator searching for a colleague who has disappeared after calling for backup in Mother's Rest.

Reacher and P.I. Chang are drawn deeper and deeper into a bewildering chain of events, clues, and encounters that have them traveling to cities as far flung as Chicago, LA, and Phoenix. They call upon all of Reacher's military and MP training and Chang's skills as a former FBI agent, then reach out for some expert help like a science journalist and a highly-skilled hacker. What they find doesn't seem very restful.

Fans of Reacher will be pleased to see his appearance in the 20th book of the series, and also to see him making some human connections as he works with Chang to find her missing colleague. The action scenes are intense and fast; the intrigue has more layers than any onion ever hoped to have; and the cross sections of American culture they explore could not be any more widely varied.

For those who have not read any of the previous outings, this series has elements of detective work, hand-to-hand and armed confrontations, and a protagonist who always does what he feels is right - although it may not always be legal. The level and type of violence described, and the occasional references to adult/intimate situations make it suitable for older teens and adult readers - not for a younger crowd.

I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Summer Reading 2015 Pop Sonnets: Shakespearean Spins on Your Favorite Songs


Thou spinnest my head right round, right round, Erik Didriksen. 

I have had the most fun reading these sonnet versions of pop songs. After the first page, I made it into a game. I would cover the song credits listed below the poem and try to guess which lyrics had inspired each sonnet. And I laughed out loud while reading them, but who wouldn't laugh at "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" rendered in Shakespeare's style?

Presented as a cache of long-lost sonnets by Shakespeare that have been mined for lyrics by the music industry since the 1950s, these clever rewrites mimic the Bard's style while staying true to the content of the original performers. There are sections for Sonnets of Love, Sonnets of Despair, Songs of Time and Mortality, Songs of Rogues, Rascals, and Wanton Women, and Ballads of Heroes. And there is something to appeal to everyone's taste. Sources range from Elton John to Daft Punk, and Chuck Berry to Meghan Trainor. Can you imagine Shakespeare penning "All About that Bass"?

This is perfect for poetry and Shakespeare lovers, fans of pop music and pop culture, and readers who have come to love the mashups (like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), where old meets new in a refreshing way. Picture using this as a hook for a language arts lesson and having students try to identify the original songs from these retrofitted versions. Or perhaps you would like to have them choose a favorite song and construct their own sonnet, after reading these as model texts. Whatever you did with it, it would definitely make an impression.

I think I need a copy of this to read on days when I am feeling a bit disheartened. Seeing "Thriller" turned into a sonnet should set my world to rights quickly enough.

I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Summer Reading 2015 The Martian


This is a highly entertaining story about an astronaut who is accidentally marooned on Mars by his team. If you enjoy sci-fi and especially like characters who can invent or modify gadgets as well as MacGyver, then you should give this a read. Mark Watney is a man trained in botany and engineering, both of which may help him survive until a rescue mission can be mounted. His log entries reveal the emotions he feels as he struggles to stay alive - including frustration with the Disco music and 70s TV shows some of the others brought along as entertainment. As you read, you become one of the millions on Earth who are cheering for him to find a way home.

The Martian is science fiction - no fantasy elements, no paranormal abilities or supernatural entities, no extra-terrestrials; it could be called "pure" sci-fi. Weir shows us the incredible amount of mathematics and scientific know-how that is required of astronauts, especially those stranded on a planet without a breathable atmosphere or edible flora or fauna. The protagonist must solve multiple problems just to stay alive long enough to have a chance at solving the problem of escaping Mars and returning home. Readers come to know Watney as we follow his remarkable efforts to produce oxygen and food, establish contact with mission control, and try to survive injuries, explosions, and sand storms (among other hazards).

The tension of the NASA personnel on Earth who are trying to organize a rescue is so convincing that I found myself gripping the book tightly and leaning forward as if I could jump right into the story and offer to help. Several movie plots have revolved around expeditions to Mars, but this book does the best job of making it believable.

Visit the publisher's website  for more information about the book , or the author. I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

* 10/03/15  I just returned from watching the movie based on this book. It was a very good adaptation of the story. Here is the trailer for the movie.

Beaks and Geeks podcast with Andy Weir Q&A with Andy Weir

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Summer Reading 2015 Trouble is a Friend of Mine


You know those buddy movies where one friend is always getting the other into crazy situations? Sure you do. The more adventuresome member of the group lays out a plan that seems so logical, because they say it in such a calm and rational way. So the other(s) agree, even though they know better from past experience. And then, once their brains begin to work again and they notice all the inconsistencies and gaps in the plan, they are suddenly saying, "Wait! No. What?" as they stumble into another impossible situation.

That's what it is like to be on "Planet Digby," as his friend Henry calls it. Philip Digby is a bit of a celebrity in River Heights because his little sister was abducted from their home 8 years ago and never found. When he decides to enlist new girl Zoe Webster in helping him look into the disappearance of a high school girl, it becomes a series of dangerous and complicated events that seem to come faster and faster. Along with the help of Digby's longtime friend Henry and the school's resident genius, Felix,they investigate such odd places as a gynecologist's office, the storage shed at the football field, a convenience mart near the interstate, and a sleazy hotel in a bad part of town.

What makes the story so captivating are all the undercurrents running through each of the characters. Digby still wants answers about what happened to his sister. Zoe is angry at both her parents over their divorce. Her father is pushing her to attend a private school and come live with him and her stepmother. Her mother is finally dating someone, but hasn't told Zoe yet. Henry once dated the missing girl and worries about what happened to her. It's such a mix of normal teenage angst and more life-altering trauma, all swirled together with the manic pace of Digby's sleuthing efforts.

If you like realistic fiction, but you don't mind if the action is a bit like a mashup of episodes from "Sherlock", "Weeds", and "21 Jump Street" (without the badges), then this will feel just right. It's quirky, charming, occasionally nail-biting, and you will be sad when it ends and want the characters to hurry up and get into more "shenanigans" (as Digby calls them), right away.

I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley. (Recommended for readers ages 12 and up by the publisher.)

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Summer Reading 2015 Armada by Ernest Cline

Space Invaders. Galaga. Asteroids. Defender. Tempest. Missile Command. What do all of these things have in common? Many of us spent hours of our teenage years (and even into our twenties or beyond), playing these games in arcades and on home gaming systems. We tried to keep our initials in the list of top scores. We swapped tricks and tips with friends and tried to best each other's scores. And some of us secretly hoped that one day a recruiter would come and ask us to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada, just like Alex Rogan in "The Last Starfighter."

Obviously, Ernest Cline understands that mindset very well. In his latest book he creates a world very different from that of Ready, Player One. Rather than a future with dwindling resources and a populace spending every bit of free time in virtual reality, Armada is set in a present-day world. Teenagers still drive hand-me-down cars that seem held together by rust and memories. Bullies still throw spitwads behind the teacher's back. And kids (young and old), love video games - especially Terra Firma and Armada.

The two games share a common story arc and are complementary in nature; TF focuses on controlling battle machines (a bit like "Pacific Rim" or "Robot Jox"), while Armada players are piloting space ships against an enemy fleet. Both games are fighting the same alien invaders and players can earn ranks with their skills. Zack Lightman is one of the best Armada players in the world. He comes by it naturally, because both his parents were gamers in their day. But he thinks he is losing his mind when he spots a ship just like the one in the game outside the window of his high school. Maybe it's time to unplug for a little while, right?

Luckily for the world he lives in, and for us as readers, Zack does not give up his Armada habit. Because it seems that "The Last Starfighter" may have been a bit closer to reality than any of us thought. 

Just to be clear, so no one feels cheated - this is not a sequel to Ready, Player One. The characters, setting,  and plot are all very different. But the feeling of nostalgia and being immersed in pop culture from the mid-1970s and onward through more recent phenomena like X-Files is still there. Everything from the game patches on Xavier Lightman's jacket, to the songs on the "Raid the Arcade" mix tape, and even the movie quotes from "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters" will immerse you in sci-fi/fantasy geekdom nirvana. I highly recommend it.

For more information on how the author came to have such a keen grasp of all things nerdy and geeky, in the coolest possible way, check out his Author Bio. And you can find ordering information about the book on the Penguin Random House website.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.