Category Archives: Reading Challenge

The Eyre Affair

The Eyre AffairUnknown.jpeg

by: Jasper Fforde

Penguin Books, New York, NY 2001

ISBN: 0-670-03064-3

Jasper Fforde has a delightful literary world populated by Thursday Next who words for the Special Operations Network.  That’s a government organization that deals with the repercussions of the literary world leaking over into what is essentially modern England.

Of course things are a little different too,  like Wales as an independent state and the mega-corporation (the Goliath corporation) that controls most of the world.  Thursday’s father was a SpecOps agent too.  He worked in the ChronoGuard.  When the literary world leaks, time travel and all of it’s potential and flaws leak as well.  Someone needs to keep an eye on the historical time line.  That would be ChronoGuard.  They may, or may not always be successful.  It certainly gives Fforde plenty of leeway for a world that isn’t “quite” the one we live in.

The world Fforde has evolved is a readers delight.  People CARE about literature.  Fforde writes with wit and literary allusions on every page.  People change their names to match their favorite characters.  Shakespeare machines recite scenes for a quarter on the street corners.  I’ve read several of his novels from this series.  I’ve probably even read this one before.   That’s the problem.

These books are too clever by far.  They engage, they entertain, but (at least for me) they don’t stick.  I never find myself totally immersed in the story (although occasionally Fforde’s characters do).   I’m too busy catching the references, laughing at the puns embedded in the character names, and even joining the debate about who actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays.

When I read one of these novels I know I’m in for a quick romp with lots of nods to the reader on the side.  They are great books for waiting rooms and long rides.  I may pick one up from time to time just because I’m intrigued with the title.   I’m never going to be a real fan.


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The Year They Burned The Books

The Year They Burned The BooksUnknown

by: Nancy Garden

Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York, NY  1999

ISBN: 0-374-38667-6

I found this to be a surprisingly emotional novel.  It’s a high school drama seeped in political discourse.  The main characters are the student staff of the school paper.  These are kids who believe what they’ve been taught about journalism and freedom of the press. When local conservative Christians rise up to moderate the content of the school paper these students fight for their journalistic integrity.

I suspect this novel was written specifically because Nancy Garden had a previous book banned from school libraries.  The town meeting scene where they debate maintaining morality for the children could have been taken directly from a transcript.  This story manages to touch just about every imaginable red button topic that has caused books to be banned.

Having said that, I was impressed (and marginally disappointed) with where Garden drew her lines.  There is no explicit teen sex.  However, the sex education curriculum and the availability of free condoms in the high school nurses office make the issue of teen sex a large theme.  Several of the main characters are gay, and in various stages of acceptance.  Teen suicide is touched on, but we do not lose any of the characters in the book.  Book burning happens, but the people having the bonfire used books they’d purchased, not the library books they represented.

One of the issues is that an opinion piece in the paper should not have to present both sides of the conflict.  It’s an opinion, not the news.  The students actually work very hard to find contradictory opinions and even their articles nod at some validity in their oppositions viewpoints.  This book as a whole tries to do the same.

All of the characters, even the self righteous ones, are drawn with some depth.  Everyone is portrayed as trying to do the best they can for what they believe to be right.  The gay characters are harassed and struggle internally with their identities.  They are not “out loud and proud” and they are very aware of the risks of simply allowing themselves to be who they are.

This really is a teen driven story.  The adult characters have weight and impact, but it is the teens who are affected.  I would highly recommend this book as support for kids questioning their own identities.  I would also recommend this book to people who are friends and parents of those kids.


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Shadowed Souls

Shadowed SoulsUnknown-1

Edited by: Jim Butcher and Kerrie L. Hughes

ROC New York, NY 2016

ISBN: 978-0-451-47499-5


This is an anthology that explores that grey space between “good” and “evil”.   The stories tend towards characters most people would perceive as “evil” (or at least “bad”) doing good things.  Alternatively there are stories where the characters are doing “bad” things for “good” reasons or to positive outcomes.

The anthology is marketed to the fans of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series.  There is a Dresden Files story included (featuring Molly in her new role as Winter Queen).  Here fans of the Dresden series know Molly as a “good guy”.  She is after all the daughter of an Archangel.  However, being a queen in the fairy realm brings with it certain “conditions” and Molly hasn’t read all of the small print.

Jim C. Hines is another featured author in this anthology.  Many people see Hines as the “next” Jim Butcher.  Some of his work does seem like highly elevated fan fiction.  But he is clearly coming into his own and this piece is a good example.  Like Butcher’s story, Hines main character is a woman who is immediately perceived as a “good guy”.  But unlike Molly, Julia’s background isn’t happy and it’s coming back to bite her in the ass.

There does seem to be an attempt to include women authors in this anthology.  A good third of the stories are by women and like Hines and Butcher many of the male authors feature strong female characters.  The stand out female author for me was Kat Richardson.

Her short story, Peacock in Hell, did have a female protagonist, but her male counterpart was at least equally represented and in the end he was the one orchestrating the action.  What I liked about this short story was its potential.  This could easily be the lead in to a series, and one I’m sure I would enjoy.

In this short fiction the world is clearly established.  The setting is vividly drawn.  The dynamic between the characters is an entertaining push and pull.  The supernatural elements are well grounded in an internal logic, apparent even in this limited space.

I like a good anthology and this is a very good collection.  None of the stories fell flat.  All of them really did explore the question of that line between “good” and “evil”.  This fiction is thoughtful and thought provoking.  It’s well written and has a great appeal in the fantasy genre.


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Idle Ingredients

Idle IngredientsUnknown.jpeg

by: Matt Wallace

Tom Doherty Assoc. (Tor)  New York, NY 2017

ISBN: 978-0-7653-9003-5

I picked this book up at the library because I was struck by the cover.  It was in the “new fiction” section and looked like something I would enjoy.  Stories set in kitchens tend to appeal to me.

I immediately felt like I was coming into the middle of the story.  In effect I was.  This is the fourth book in a series.  The Sin Du Jour (the catering company the books are centered around) series is about the people who work that line between humans and the other “supernatural” races.

This book, although it relied heavily on the characterizations already established in the series, does stand on it’s own – barely.  I got enough sense of the world and the characters to be intrigued by the series.  I suspect if I’d started at the beginning I might well have binged my way through to this book.

The problem is that the storyline is a bridge.  There is clearly an established relationship with the main character, Lena, and the Sin Du Jour.  The opening scenes are set in an entirely different restaurant.  Something happened that made it impossible for Lena to go back to work, so she went away and found work elsewhere.  But someone has come to bring her back.  She needs to return to the catering company to be “safe”.

Thing is there is no sense of what it is that traumatized Lena so severely.  There is also never a real explanation of what danger Lena is in outside of the Sin Du Jour, nor why she would be a target.  All of the pressure that sets up the dynamic for this storyline comes from the series.

Then, as it turns out, there is plenty of danger within Sin Du Jour.  The entire story line is informed by a political drama taking place in the supernatural world.  Again, this is probably better filled out by the rest of the series.  That drama impacts the management structure of Sin Du Jour which of course affects all of it’s employees.  Given that Lena has been forced to return and then is being effectively pushed out by the management changes  she is not having it.

I was just confused.  Why go to all the trouble of finding an employee and bringing her back if management doesn’t really want her there?  The structure of the story was very shaky.  The story line itself flowed well.  The characters were interesting.  The world is exactly up my alley.  Even the crazy cooking (what do you feed sylphs and gnomes?) was creative and fun.

I don’t know if I’ll go back to the beginning and read the series or if I’ll just put it aside.  I’m pretty sure that I would be hooked if I’d started there, but starting in the middle has left an uncertain taste in my mouth.

This was a hard book to stay with, and even harder to review.

Other books in the Sin Du Jour Series:

Envy of Angels  


Pride’s Spell



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by: Robin McKinley

The Berkley Publishing Group, New York, NY 2003

ISBN: 0-425-19178-8


I really enjoyed this book.  I have to agree with Neil Gaiman who said, “Pretty much perfect.”  I’ve read several of Robin McKinley’s retellings of fairy tales.  This is not one of them.  Many of the reviews you read will reference Beauty and the Beast, but I don’t buy it.  This tale stands alone (and begs to become a series, but the author says no.)

The main character, Sunshine, is a baker.  That by itself is enough to draw me in.  My daughter is a baker and she claims it’s from helping me in the kitchen.  Bakers are alchemists, transformers.  They turn slurry into dough.  They combine savory and sweet into something that sends our senses reeling.  And it seems that Sunshine is all that and more.

This is a world that humans “share” with the big three:  Weres, Demons, and Vampires.  The weres (and apparently you can be a were anything) are not such a problem.  It’s a once a month thing and there’s a drug for that.  Demons are rarely able to pass as human and when they do it’s because that’s what they want to be.  Vampires are a problem.

I am not big on vampire fiction.  I’m not enamored by the notion of romancing the undead.  I didn’t even get on the Buffy bandwagon until years after it aired and even more years after it was on DVD.  These vampires are spot on.

Robin McKinley manages to write with a sense of humor, a nod to fandom, and an ability to engage all of the senses.  When she describes being in the same space as a vampire you can feel your skin crawl along with the narrative.  She includes those senses of knowing without knowing how you know.

She also writes, not just the horror, but the impact of the horror.  Her characters don’t confront the monsters, wipe of the sword and prepare to fight another day.  They suffer real trauma.  Their relationships are impacted by their experiences.  Shared experiences build relationships and experiences that can’t be shared create wedges.

There is a lot of grey in Sunshine’s world.  There are people she knows who probably should be “registered” as supernatural, but aren’t.  There are law enforcement agents that are friends because of their stories, but who may not be trusted with secrets.  There are family connections that no one in the family will talk about, and plenty of speculation about what that might mean.

This is an engaging story.  A well crafted fantasy romp.  It might also be an allegory for the world we live in now.  There are no firm answers about where the tale will lead from here.  It really does beg for a sequel.  It also really stands very strongly on its own.



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The Chocolate War

The Chocolate Warunknown

by: Robert Cormier

Ember (Random House) New York, NY  1974, 2002

This is NOT a recommendation.  I hated this book (and eventually I’ll tell you why).  I am flabbergasted that it made the lists where I found it recommended.  After reading this book I wonder if any of the people who write those lists actually read this book or if they just read a good review, and the description, and put it on their list.  Even the copyright page has an endnote: “Random House Children’s Books supports the First Amendment and celebrates the right to read.”

This SOUNDS like a good book.  The basic summary: “A high school freshman discovers the devastating consequences of refusing to join in the school’s annual fund-raising drive and arousing the wrath of the school bullies.” seems pretty strait forward.  I’ll even grant that it is well written.  The characters are well developed.  The motivation for bullying is clear.  Even the demands of being a bully are touched on in the narrative.

However, there is no redemption.  The bullies are not just the teenaged boys, but also their teachers.  The bullies are not just running the school, they are apparently running the world.  The bullies win.  The bullies are rewarded.  The bullies become successful.   The bullies get the promotion and all their “dodgy” behavior is swept under the rug.  Give me Lord of the Flies (by William Golding).  At least there is some sense of “oh what have we done!” at the end.  Here we get bullying is the only way to really get ahead.

Maybe this is the book for our current political climate.  Maybe this is the way the world is destined to become.  Maybe this is who we are as a race.  I can’t abide that.  I need to live with a different world view.  I need to have teen fiction promote a different world view.  I need this to not be okay.

I hate this book.  It promotes this bad behavior, this horrible predatory attitude.  I can’t recommend it.  It may be a good place to start a discussion, but even in that context I don’t like it.  I don’t think a book should “require” a book club to be a good read.

I do believe in the first amendment and the right to read.  I don’t believe in promoting destructive behavior, and that’s what this book does.  It’s not an examination of cruel behavior patterns, it’s a propaganda piece for not “disturbing the universe”.


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The Magicians

The Magiciansthemagicians

by: Lev Grossman

Plume (Penguin Group) New York, NY  2009

ISBN 978-0-670-02055-3

The Magicians is currently playing on cable television.  I binge watched the first season on the recommendation of several friends.  I enjoyed it enough that I thought I should probably read the book.  This is the first in the series, of books.  The first book pretty much is the first season of the TV series, and even leaks a little into the second season.

It is rare that a visual media is successful at capturing the nature of a book.  Even when both are excellent work within their genre, there are compromises that must be made.  I was incredibly impressed with the choices the series producers made as they brought this book to the small screen.

One of the first things that often goes by the wayside is the physical description of the characters.  You have to go with the actors you can get.  In this case the casting was very close to perfect and all of the actors have gone above and beyond to incorporate the specific character quirks into their characterizations.  Q. is mopey, Elliot is trying too hard but very successful at it, Alice is too smart, too good, and too shy.

One of the differences that really works is the shift in setting.  In the book much or even most of the action takes place after Brakebills.  In the series the action is centered around Brakebills.  This works both because of the Harry Potter context most viewers are bringing to the table, but also because it facilitates the exposition of the magical system.  It’s easy in writing to take the time to explain how and why things work.  We’re not going to sit in for an entire episode that constitutes a class on basic magic.  We get to watch the relationships being built so that we will accept that these “college chums” will band together.

The difficulty of moving the story to Brakebills is that some of the action must truly take place in New York City.  This is where the series has expanded the scope and involvement of the Julia character.  The girl who was Q’s friend growing up, who “should have been accepted” at Brakebills, and wasn’t, is the catalyst for the “real world” impact of the threat to Magic.  I honestly found myself missing Julia as I read the book.  She wasn’t necessary, but I really liked that character.

I’ve been told she does have more to play as the story goes on, and I suspect that’s also why the series producers made the decision to bring her in at the start.  I may continue reading in the series (it’s easier than trying to keep up with a season on TV) but I suspect I will find myself binge watching again as the television seasons make their way to Netflix.

The story is simple.  The fantasy world that Q was enamored of as a child is a real place in the multiverse.  Magic exists, and people who are smart enough are tested, welcomed, and trained at magical colleges throughout the world.  Then they are set free to make whatever “grown-up” lives they choose.  Q finds Fillory, the world of his childhood fantasy, is the source of all magic in the multiverse.  That magic is threatened and it is Q and his peers that must become the rulers of Fillory and conquer the foe before magic is gone for good.

The way the story plays out, however, is not simple.  There is a lot of exploration of sexual abuse (in various forms) and the impact that can have.  There is the theme of “what if everything is too easy?”, do we every grow up if we are never challenged.  What ways must we be challenged in order to reach our true potential?  There is Elliot’s storyline about growing up gay, or bi, in a small conservative town.  There are real consequences to taking on the crowns of Fillory.  There is some debate about what is a God and what constrains them.  Big themes in a small story.

I found both the television series and the novel thought provoking, well told, and genuinely entertaining.


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Cooking for Picasso

Cooking for Picassopicasso

by: Camille Aubray

Ballantine Books, New York, NY  2016

ISBN: 978-0-399-17765-1


This book was delightful, like reading a painting.  The colors, textures, and tastes both in the food and the setting were rich and satisfying.  The story itself reads like the memoir of someone exploring their family history.  It was so compelling I really wanted it to be true.

This is historical fiction at it’s best.  The historical characters are brought to life in a way that advances our appreciation, knowledge and understanding of their work and place in history.  It humanizes them and makes them three-dimensional, people rather than characters. Given that the predominant historical character in this novel is Picasso, humanizing him is a challenge.

Picasso is central to the story, but he actually only appears in a few scenes.  When he does he is given credibility in his character and his actions by his association with his work.  The period of interacting with the artist is right after he has painted his Minotaur series.  It is common, in art history, to see an artists work as autobiographical and here Picasso is clearly cast as his minotaur.

Describing Picasso’s appearance is easy, but conveying the sensual appeal of this temperamental bull of a man is harder.  In this case the attraction was not because of his wealth or notoriety.  Although he opened the door for escape from a small, controlled life, he wasn’t ever going to be the door.  His appeal, his animal magnetism, was simply a part of who he was and it is very much a part of this book.  His presence is persistent even when he is nowhere near the scene.  The age difference wasn’t appalling because of the period and because clearly the grandmother was (maybe for the first time in her life) making her own choices.  It’s an “eye’s wide open” relationship.

The art that is referenced also helps to build the credibility of this fiction.  The grandmother who cooked for Picasso is cast as the figure in a work where the identity of the model is still debated.  The family heirloom that makes an appearance in a rare Picasso still life, painted in the same period, allows the granddaughter to truly believe the family legend.  The historical novel construction, where everything is fantasy except the things that are historical is also the basis of this story.

The granddaughter/protagonist is given, in secret, her grandmother’s recipe book.  The mother offers “from when she cooked for Picasso”.  There is nothing indicating Picasso specifically in the notes.  Everything is coded with initials.  The family dynamic is toxic and with the sudden death of the stepfather the granddaughter is cut off from her mother.  She can not ask for any more clues or information about the grandmother’s story.  It’s all a little mythic.

She finds her mother has signed up for a cooking class, in France, and suspects that her mother intended to explore the relationship between the grandmother and Picasso.  The granddaughter undertakes the journey and search for herself and finds a bit of her family story and a lot of her own.  When she runs across a “coincidence” where the actual history matches up with the family story her faith in the story builds.

Much of the narrative is actually written in the grandmother’s time and point of view.  We get a sense of the family history as it happened.  We begin to understand how the family dynamics became so toxic.  Art, whether it be paining, or pottery, or cooking, appears again and again as the key to salvation of the soul.

I did google the paintings as they were referenced to add a visual dimension to the storytelling.  Picasso is so stylistically indescribable, and yet I was pretty sure I recognized the paintings from the descriptions in the tale.  I wasn’t familiar with the series of paintings that, in this story, are the portraits of the grandmother.  Reading her reaction to the paintings and then viewing them for myself added both understanding and appreciation of the artist’s eye that becomes a family trait.

Although it is not necessary, I do recommend at some point in reading the book to spend some time viewing Picasso’s work.  This period in particular, where he “disappeared”, is a shift for him as well.  The novel allows us to speculate that the relationship with Picasso had an impact, not only on the family in the story, but also on the great artist himself.


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Hard to Die

Hard to Dieunknown

by: Andra Watkins

Word Hermit Press LLC   Charleston, SC



I tagged this book with “historical fiction” because the characters are certainly historical.   The primary character is Theodosia Burr Alston, daughter of Aaron Burr (remembered primarily for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel).   Theodosia died under “mysterious circumstances” and therefore has found herself in Andra Watkins Afterlife series.

Those whose deaths are unresolved find themselves in Nowhere.  They have limited memories of the circumstances of their deaths, and no memories of their time in Nowhere.  Each has a “conductor” who charges them to help a living person make a better choice in their lives.  The dead have 13 chances to find resolution or they will be trapped forever in this in between place.

Theodosia’s life was filled with political intrigue.  Her father was tried for treason.  Her godfather was probably a spy.  She herself was highly educated and involved with many of the movers and shakers of her time.  (She makes an appearance in the musical Hamilton.)  It is not a surprise that her Afterlife story would also be filled with spies, treason, and political intrigue.

Set in the Hudson River Valley near West Point, the geography and legendary history of the area also play a role in the story.  The scenes in New York City revolve around Grand Central Station and its starry skied ceiling.  Theodosia is having her past life in 1950.  Her mission is to help one of the West Point cadets make a good choice towards a better life.

Unfortunately for Theo,  Nowhere is hardly a solitary place.  There are several other characters from Theodosia’s life who are also struggling with resolving their deaths.  The interplay between what has past and what is happening in the story, still our history, adds to the intrigue and suspense.

Andra’s novels bring historical characters into three dimensions. She makes her characters come to life and places them in settings that contribute to the story telling. Hard to Die grabs the reader from the start and hangs on tightly through all the twists and turns. I’m not sure I like Andra’s Theodosia, but I found her fascinating. Looking forward to more Nowhere novels.


Also by Andra Watkins:






To Life Forever: An Afterlife Journey of Meriwether Lewis   This is Andra’s first novel and the first in the Afterlife series.  Meriwether Lewis is quite the character and the harrowing run towards the place of his death along the Natchez Trace adds color and history to the story.


Not Without My Father   A memoir of her journey as she walked the Natchez Trace, her father along as her back-up and support.


Natchez Trace: Tracks in Time   The photo journal of Andra’s walk


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by: Julie Anne Peters

Little Brown and Company  NY, NY 2004

ISBN: 978-0-316-00127-3


Luna is a typical coming of age story.  It is a story of siblings in their teens each struggling to find who they are and each looking to move into a world outside their disfunctional family.  These siblings understand each other in ways no one else can.  Still, they are teens and neither is aware of the damage their own struggle is doing to their sibling.

Luna is an LGBTQ novel.  It is the story of a teen struggling with gender identity.  It is the story of how hard it is to find yourself in a world that expects you to be something you simply can not be.  It is about finding the strength and courage to be honest with the world about who you really are.

Luna is an outsiders tale.  There are no surprises here.  The transgender dynamic and sibling relationship is established in the first chapter.  The point of view character is the sister of the transgendered teen.  She is the protector, the peacemaker, the refuge for her sibling.  The story is about her struggle.  She accepts her sibling, but doesn’t believe anyone else will.  She is an outsider because she must stand by an outsider, be impacted by an outsider.

The author is very free with her use of gender pronouns.  The transgender character is identified as both he and she by the sister.  Some of the gender use is “situational”.  She uses the gender for her sibling that everyone expects.  Some of the gender use is “role based”.  She uses the gender based on how her sibling is actively presenting.  Some of the gender use is simply the sister coming to terms with the reality of who her sibling really is.

This is a sweet and honest look at some of the emotional struggles family members may have with a transgendered sibling.  Because of my exposure to the disability community I am very much aware that siblings and sibling’s emotions can get short changed when families are confronted with a “real” problem.  This story allows the sister’s experiences to be “real” as well.

On the other hand, it doesn’t offer much of a lifeline to the point of view of the transgendered youth.  There is definitely a sense of “It gets better”.   There is a clear representation of the repression of role playing and the freedom to be who you are. But for all of the LGTBQ content, this is not an LGTBQ story.  It is a sibling story.

I really do recommend this book.  It’s a point of view that isn’t well represented in the literature.   This book would be welcomed by the sibling of any “outsider”.  I also think that it’s a generally LGTBQ positive rendering of a difficult family story.

This book is about gender, not about sexuality.  There is some banter about being gay.  The name calling is teen typical (if inappropriate, it still underlines character and it’s interesting that as supportive of the sister is of trans/queer she doesn’t hesitate to call a teacher retarded).   There is teen attraction, but nothing beyond a kiss.   I would say that makes this book very appropriate for pre-teens interested in the topic.


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