Itty Bitty Book Reviews, The Holiday Edition

Holy smokes, it’s December already?  I don’t know about the rest of you….but where did 2013 go?

It’s been a whirlwind year full of great books and I while I know I’ve missed out on some awesome ones, I’ve also read some amazing and not so amazing novels this year.  But more on that later, I’ll have one final Itty Bitty Book Review – a Greatest Hits and Misses Edition – before the year is out.

So let’s get right to it and see what books I’ve been tackling that have caught my attention since we last talked:

final descent The Final Descent by Rick Yancey
Pub. date:  Sept. 2013 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

From Goodreads:  Will Henry and Dr. Warthrop have encountered many horrors together—but can Will endure a monstrumological terror without his mentor?

Will Henry has been through more that seems possible for a boy of fourteen. He’s been on the brink of death on more than one occasion, he has gazed into hell—and hell has stared back at him, and known his face. But through it all, Dr. Warthrop has been at his side.

When Dr. Warthrop fears that Will’s loyalties may be shifting, he turns on Will with a fury, determined to reclaim his young apprentice’s devotion. And so Will must face one of the most horrific creatures of his monstrumology career—and he must face it alone.

Over the course of one day, Will’s life—and Pellinor Warthrop’s destiny—will lie in balance. In the terrifying depths of the Monstrumarium, they will face a monster more terrible than any they could have imagined—and their fates will be decided.

Arrrggh….THIS BOOK.  It ripped my heart out, threw it on the floor, stomped on it, and then put it back.  A few times.  And if that isn’t graphic enough for you, when I finished the book, I actually put it down, sobbed a little, picked it back up and read the last few pages again.  Why?  Apparently, I’m a glutton for punishment.

I’ve talked quite a bit about why I love The Monstrumologist series by Rick Yancey.  To sum all four books up in a neat package would be impossible.  Part of my job is recommending books to people so if I were to try and sell this book to anyone, it would be to those people (teens or adults) looking for, or who don’t mind the following: Sherlock-type half-heroes; monsters; gore; horror tales; literary fiction; high prose; stories concerning morality, the nature of man, or what happens when you take away man’s ability to function in society; a darn good read.  (Also see Kenneth Oppel’s This Dark Endeavor, Lindsey Barraclough’s Long Lankin, and Lena Coakley’s Witchlanders.)

But this book, the final in the series, does something the other three do not – make you question everything you know about the characters.  And not just in a oh, look, moral turpentine kind of way.  No, this is the earth-shattering, sky-breaking kind of stuff that really makes you question exactly what could have happened that would make William James Henry, undoubtedly the hero of the three previous novels and caretaker for the indubitably difficult Pellinore Warthrop, suddenly be so different, so hard and sharp-edged.   So yes, read them, love them (or not, trust me, some people don’t and I can understand why!) and then feel free to converse with me on Twitter (@afensch26) about them.  I want to hear from people who read these novels – it’s awfully lonely out here sometimes.

are you experiencedAre You Experienced? by Jordan Sonnenblick
Pub. date Sept. 2013 by Feiwel and Friends

From Goodreads:  Rich is fifteen and plays guitar. When his girlfriend asks him to perform at protest rally, he jumps at the chance. Unfortunately, the police show up, and so does Rich’s dad. He’s in big trouble. Again. To make matters worse, this happens near the anniversary of his uncle’s death from a drug overdose years ago. Rich’s dad always gets depressed this time of year, but whenever Rich asks questions about his late uncle, his dad shuts down.

Frustrated by his dad’s silence, Rich sneaks into his office and breaks into a locked cabinet that holds his dad’s prized possession: an electric guitar signed by Jimi Hendrix. Before he knows it, Rich is transported to the side of a road in Upstate New York with a beautiful girl bending over him. It will take him a while to realize it’s 1969, he’s at Woodstock, and the girl’s band of friends includes his fifteen-year-old dad and his uncle, who’s still alive. What Rich learns, who he meets, and what he does could change his life forever.

Now this is a fun, if not slightly sad, book.  If you know Sonnenblick’s other work (Notes from the Midnight Driver is my favorite, next to Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie), you’ll be familiar with his blend of humor, family drama, girl drama, and stark emotional play.  This book is a little different from his previous work, and not just because of the time travel element. It’s funny almost from the get-go, which is what draws you in, but so does Rich’s family drama surrounding the death of his uncle.  The image Sonnenblick draws of Rich’s dad locking himself in the basement with old records once a year on the anniversary of his brother’s death is one that stays with you throughout the book, especially after Rich manages to travel back in time with Jimi Hendrix’s guitar and actually winds up running around Woodstock with his dad and his uncle.

This book will make you feel all kinds of things.  If you’re a music fan like me, this book definitely has mass appeal beyond just the fun of the time travel storyline.  I grew up on this music so all the careful detailing Sonnenblick puts into the book is really appreciated.  And by the end, you’ll feel like you took the journey right along with Rich and got a bit of a lesson in music history while you’re at it.  I highly recommend this one.

where things come back Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley
Pub. date May 2011 by Antheneum Books for Young Readers

From Goodreads:  Just when seventeen-year-old Cullen Witter thinks he understands everything about his small and painfully dull Arkansas town, it all disappears. . . .

In the summer before Cullen’s senior year, a nominally-depressed birdwatcher named John Barling thinks he spots a species of woodpecker thought to be extinct since the 1940s in Lily, Arkansas. His rediscovery of the so-called Lazarus Woodpecker sparks a flurry of press and woodpecker-mania. Soon all the kids are getting woodpecker haircuts and everyone’s eating “Lazarus burgers.” But as absurd as the town’s carnival atmosphere has become, nothing is more startling than the realization that Cullen’s sensitive, gifted fifteen-year-old brother Gabriel has suddenly and inexplicably disappeared.

While Cullen navigates his way through a summer of finding and losing love, holding his fragile family together, and muddling his way into adulthood, a young missionary in Africa, who has lost his faith, is searching for any semblance of meaning wherever he can find it. As distant as the two stories seem at the start, they are thoughtfully woven ever closer together and through masterful plotting, brought face to face in a surprising and harrowing climax.

Complex but truly extraordinary, tinged with melancholy and regret, comedy and absurdity, this novel finds wonder in the ordinary and emerges as ultimately hopeful. It’s about a lot more than what Cullen calls, “that damn bird.” It’s about the dream of second chances.

This is my second read-through of this novel, so I’m coming at this review from a slightly different angle.  I read Whaley’s small but powerful novel when it first came out in 2011 and instantly thought Printz winner, and so wasn’t really shocked when it did in fact win the 2012 Printz.  (It also won that year’s William C. Morris award for best debut YA novel.)  I read it again a few weeks ago because I wanted to, since it’s been sitting on my shelves but also because my library is Skyping with John at the end of January and I wanted to re-familiarize myself with the book.  (And I’m really looking forward to his upcoming novel Noggin - have you read the description for that?  Who comes up with a concept like that?  It’s fantastic!)

This is an unassuming, very quiet book that will fool you most of the way through.  Whaley has a writing style that will make you feel right at home, then pull the rug out from underneath you and suddenly you can’t turn off the emotions even if you tried.  It’s a great read, one that I always recommend for people who like realistic YA novels and who don’t mind a protagonist that can really get into your head.

And finally…
by John Scalzi
Pub. date June 2012 by Tor

From Goodreads:  Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456. It’s a prestige posting, and Andrew is thrilled all the more to be assigned to the ship’s Xenobiology laboratory.

Life couldn’t be better…until Andrew begins to pick up on the fact that (1) every Away Mission involves some kind of lethal confrontation with alien forces, (2) the ship’s captain, its chief science officer, and the handsome Lieutenant Kerensky always survive these confrontations, and (3) at least one low-ranked crew member is, sadly, always killed.

Not surprisingly, a great deal of energy below decks is expended on avoiding, at all costs, being assigned to an Away Mission. Then Andrew stumbles on information that completely transforms his and his colleagues’ understanding of what the starship Intrepid really is…and offers them a crazy, high-risk chance to save their own lives.

Anyone who has ever been or who still is a Trekkie at heart, or just a sci-fi fan will love this book.  Scathingly funny and insightful at the same time, Scalzi picks apart sci-fi tropes and stereotypes while having more than a little fun with the absurdity (and don’t lie, you know it’s there) of the Star Trek universe.  Of course, for the sake of copyright, Star Trek or anything connected to it is never mentioned by name but still, anyone who is even a fair-weather fan will get the references.  And did I mention it’s funny?  Pee your pants funny, so funny I had to put it down at times because I was laughing so hard.

If that’s not an endorsement, I don’t know what is.  The bulk of the novel is how the ensigns of the ship, the “redshirts”, try to piece together the mysteries surrounding the odd goings on of the ship, including the deaths that happen every time an Away Team goes on a mission.  Inevitably, a low ranking ship member dies on these missions, which means no one wants to go on them.  I won’t ruin the story for you any more, but I will say that when I finished with the book, I felt like I had been taken for quite the ride – final frontier and all.  (It also won the Hugo Award in 2013 for Best Science-Fiction novel and Scalzi, an author who now resides in Ohio, has been known to take his Hugo to readings, including the one he did at the library in his hometown, so you can see it and maybe even pet it – he said that, not me.)

We have one more Itty Bitty Book Review left before the year is out, but until then, here’s what I’m looking forward to in the next few weeks and into 2014!  –Amanda

no one else can have younogginavalondefy



2 Responses to “Itty Bitty Book Reviews, The Holiday Edition”

  1. stacy says:

    Amanda, I want to read DEFY and NOGGIN and AVALON!!

  2. Amanda says:

    Stacy, I HAVE NOGGIN! RIGHT NOW! And I love it so far…*sigh* We’ll see what I feel like by the end but I’m about 50 pages and I’m liking what I’m reading.

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