Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Bad Monkey, by Carl Hiaasen (audiobook read by Arte Johnson)

It's like Kinky Friedman and Christopher Moore got together and had a misanthropic baby. A baby with an ill-tempered monkey.

I only wish I had read this book sooner. I've had it on my e-reader for about a million years (or whenever the advanced review copies were released) but it took me this long to get around to it. On the plus side, that also allowed me to enjoy the audiobook read by Arte Johnson, which is FAN-TAS-TIC.

One of my favourite reviewers on Goodreads, R.S. Carter (seriously, if you're not following his reviews, you should), pointed out that Carl Hiaasen must not like women very much, since all of his female characters are broadly painted caricatures of awful personality types. And it's true. I mean, I think the "Dragon Queen" character isn't even given a real name. Of course, another Goodreads reviewer responded by pointing out that his male characters are pretty awful and unlikable as well. Also true. So he's a misanthrope. But something about the kvetchy reading by Arte Johnson makes the misanthropic craziness of the book seem, well, almost irresistible.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Stuff Every College Student Should Know, by Blair Thornburgh

Fantastic! I thought it'd be silly or at least, well, quirky (considering it's published by Quirk Books, who you probably know from their Worst Case Scenario guides and amalgams of classic literature with zombies, sea creatures, and the like) but this was full of solid advice like:

--How to do laundry;
--How to cook in a microwave (I'm totally stealing that personal sized chocolate chip cookie recipe);
--How to ask your parents for money (do it in person and corner one parent rather than both);
--How to email a professor (no emoticons!).

I also like the small size. It's perfect for sending in a care package! (And graduation present season is just around the corner...)

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

My 4-year-old has way too much faith in the postal service

Today was Shakespeare's birthday and Magda decided to celebrate--because she knows I like Shakespeare (sort of) and she considers herself an expert on birthdays, having had four of them already--by making him a nice card. It started out well, with her disappearing to her art table with all of her crayons and a large piece of paper.

Then she asked me for an envelope and stamps. Wait a minute.

I was like, "Honey, where is it you think you're sending it?" And she was like, "To Shakespeare. It's his birthday, Mommy." (Duh.)

Me--Okay, but you know he's dead, right? He was born 450 years ago and he died 398 years ago. Remember we learned that he died on his own birthday? So he's definitely dead.

Magda--I know that, Mommy. He died on his birthday. But on his actual birthday, like when he was born, he wasn't dead yet. He was only a baby. I'm sending the card to Baby Shakespeare.

I admit I didn't have an answer for that. I felt kind of like Allie Brosh when she found a letter she had written as a child to her future self, asking her future self to please write back.

In the end I told Magda we'd compromise and send it "to the internet" instead. Here's what she made:

The red things are presents. I asked Magda what was in them and she said, "I don't know. He hasn't opened them yet." Honestly, I think sometimes she must be frustrated by my inability to get things.

That's Shakespeare on the left, wearing a ruff. Magda told me that the person on the right is someone wearing a party hat and preparing to blow out the candles on Shakespeare's birthday cake before he gets a chance to, which Magda explained was "very aggrevating." Note that the only other person at Shakespeare's birthday party is someone specifically trying to piss him off.

Then again, he did die on his birthday, so it's not like this is the worst thing that ever happened to him at a birthday party.

Happy Birthday, Baby Shakespeare!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Don't Turn the Page, by Rachelle Burk (illustrated by Julie Downing)

If you only read one book about a porcupine baby who reads a story about a bear cub who reads a story about a porcupine baby all year, it should be this one. It's a book within a book, a story and a meta-story, and it's all kinds of adorable!

Sami is a baby porcupine (or is she a hedgehog? Magda and her dad hoped she might be) who doesn't want to go to bed (because she's not even tired!) but she and her stuffed bear do want to read a bedtime story. Just don't call it a bedtime story (because she's not even tired!).

The book they read is about a little bear cub who is getting ready for bed. He gathers his stuffed porcupine (hedgehog?) toy and settles in for a book. And the book he's reading is this book, the one about the porcupine (hedgehog? porcuhog?). So meta.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Marilyn Monroe: Poems, by Lyn Lifshin

Poetry collections are among the most difficult books to review. Poetry, even more than most other kinds of writing, is so subjective and also so personal. If you don't like a poem, it's easy for the poet to argue that you "just didn't get it."

Having said that, I didn't like these poems.

I was excited for this collection because I've always had a great admiration for Marilyn Monroe, like so many other people who were born long after she died. She's fascinating, even in death (my mother insists that Marilyn's fame after death is greater by far than any she enjoyed in life). Plus, I like poetry. I just don't like reviewing it.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Big or Little? (Board Book edition), by Kathy Stinson (illustrations by Jennifer A. Bell)

Kathy Stinson's (Red is Best, The Man With the Violin) new book, Big or Little? is about an experience that every parent of a toddler or preschooler can relate to: your child feels (and behaves) like a big kid some of the time, but also feels (and is treated) like a little kid other times.

Helping in the garden makes him feel big. Being able to reach the elevator button makes her feel big. But then she has to go to bed when she's not even tired, or he tries putting on a shirt and the sleeves end up in all the wrong places, and it's back to feeling small.

It's the constant struggle of being a toddler (as The Honest Toddler will attest).

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Revenant of Thraxton Hall (The Paranormal Casebooks of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), by Vaughn Entwistle

Eeee! I loved this book so much! It was the most fun book I've read all month (I read a lot of books, so that's definitely a compliment).

I love detective fiction set in Victorian England ('VicLit,' I like to call it) but lately I seem to have found all the worst examples of the genre. I was starting to despair. I'm so glad I found this book. It was like a palate cleanser after a bad meal, or in this case, after bad writing.

Not only is The Revenant of Thraxton Hall well written, it's SO MUCH FUN. It's like a Scooby Doo episode for nerdy adults. Vaughn Entwistle has Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde investigating a murder in a haunted castle. There are secret passageways, spooky portraits, levitating psychics, blind butlers, ghosts, guests wearing masks, and--oh my god!--a family crypt with coffins! Not to mention a mirror maze, a monkey running amok, a woman allergic to sunlight... Oh it's just so much fun I can't stand it!

The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright's Universe, by Dan Falk

The Science of Shakespeare isn't so much about scientific principles or even about William Shakespeare as a person. It's all about context. What did the world look like at the time of Galileo, not to the philosophers and the astronomers but to the artists and the populace? Shakespeare's plays are full of references to the body, the natural world and the cosmos, but they were written at a time when our modern understanding of medicine, biology, and the universe was just beginning to unfold.

"If you're a Shakespeare nerd AND a science nerd AND a history of science nerd, this book is perfect for you," Dan Falk said at a recent library event in my city (I'm paraphrasing just a little). "But that's probably a pretty narrow audience." Maybe, but I'm definitely in that group!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Mangle Street Murders (The Gower St. Detective: Book 1), by M.R.C. Kasasian

Research always shows in writing. If an author skimps on their research before writing a novel, it can ruin the impact of the whole book. While this may not be true for every book, it is always true for historical novels. Always. After reading some truly stellar historical mysteries set in Victorian England (plus several great non-fiction books about the time period and its real life crimes), as well as some truly awful ones, I approach every historical mystery with some healthy skepticism. Will this be as good as Ann Granger's Inspector Ross series? Or Alex Grecian's first book? Or will it be a mess, like Mrs. Poe? Or Alex Grecian's second book? I'm ever hopeful, but I've been disappointed so many times.

In the case of The Mangle Street Murders, I'm undecided. On the one hand, I'm not sure I completely trust the author's research, but on the other hand I'm not sure if it's factually incorrect or just poorly written. It sometimes seems that the whole book is written with modern values in mind, just "aged back" with old-timey words like "pianoforte."

The Vanishing, by Wendy Webb

Look at that cover. Isn't it gorgeous? So atmospheric and evocative. Okay, now for the bad news. It's everything else. Everything else except the cover is the bad news.

Maybe not everything. The basic storyline is okay, there's the makings of a good ghost story in there. But the writing is SO BAD. It's poorly constructed, full of cliches, and the research is completely non-existent. As in, I'm pretty sure that if Wendy Webb was in the middle of writing and she couldn't remember the name of something (like the specific Great Lake or Canadian province near where her story takes place) she just said something vague like "lake" or "border" and skipped over it. Annnnnd repeat. It was beyond irritating.