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A Cast of Stones (The Staff and the Sword Book #1)

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Errol Stone has grown to manhood as the town-drunk in an out-of-the way village. When a messenger from the capital city comes for a reclusive monk, Errol offers to help deliver the message in exchange for enough money to keep him in drink for a week. But he is attacked while trying to deliver the message, and is consequently swept up into an intrigue that he'd rather ignore. He and the monk must travel to the capital city, for it appears that the childless King might soon be on his deathbed, and corrupt politicians are vying for the throne. This story also throws hints about an evil force more powerful than man which might overthrow the land if the King dies without an heir. I really enjoyed this story. I was sucked in from the beginning, and I could easily empathize to poor Errol's feelings that events were circling outside of his control. He was a very real character to me, which is rare in YA fantasy. The world-building was also impressive in this book. The world was built upon foundations expected for Christian Fiction, but it had the right ratio of realistic to fantastical elements to make it a fun and easy read. My one complaint is that the book ended in a cliff-hanger. The basic quest that was begun in this book was completed, thankfully, but it left many threads dangling for the next book. Luckily, that book will be published later this year. This story is suitable for young teens and up.
Skellig

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Soon after Michael's family moves to a new home, his sister is born prematurely. While his parents are ferrying the newborn back and forth to the hospital, Michael deals with his stress by exploring their dilapidated garage. There, he finds a strange owl-like man. As Michael and the girl-next-door nurse the winged man back to health, he learns a lesson about love. This was a sweet little book. It was quite short, so there wasn't a lot of plot, but the characters and premise was quite adorable. This book would be appropriate for 7-9 year olds who enjoy reading magical realism. Almond did a fantastic job of narrating his own book. He has an engaging reading voice and had all the rhythms and intonations flowing well.
Sharp Objects: A Novel

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Camille Preaker is a troubled young woman and a mediocre journalist. When her editor sends her to her home-town in Missouri for investigative reporting on a possible serial killer, she must stay with her emotionally-destructive mother and wild half-sister. As Camille struggles with ghosts from her past, including her own self-destructive behavior and memories of a dead sister, she discovers that the murders are darker and more complex than she'd originally suspected. Although this book certainly had a good deal of mystery to it, it wasn't really for me. Although I generally liked Camille's character, there were several times when I groaned inwardly at her choices. She was weak and self-destructive. Such characters are really difficult to write well, and Sharp Objects had a bit of a debut-novel feel to it - perhaps Camille's character should have been created by a more seasoned author. Another issue I had with the book is it was simply too dark for my tastes. There was so much ugliness in the book. Violence, self-loathing, sexual exploitation, and more. On the other hand, I DO understand why some people like this book. The key question to ask is - how much ugliness can you deal with? If you like reading about emotionally troubled characters, then this book would be attractive to you. There was a slight redemptive feel to the story at the end. A ray of hope for Camille. I appreciate that I was given that much.
My New Teacher and Me!

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Billy is excited to meet his new teacher Mr. Booth - but Mr. Booth isn't too excited to meet Billy. Mr. Booth questions Billy about why the boy is covered in dirt, and Billy launches into an imaginative story about how he was digging in his backyard and found a dinosaur. When Mr. Booth expresses skepticism, Billy's story gets wilder and wilder. Finally, Billy teaches Mr. Booth a lesson that the most inventive people in the world were also the most creative thinkers - they were people who didn't yield to hard-set rules set by color-within-the-line leaders. This is a fun story, with great illustrations, and something to think about. Perfect for little kids. :)
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention

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In Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, Manning Marable set out to honestly portray a man and to humanize an icon. Marable intended on filling in holes left by truth-bending and necessary lack-of-future-knowledge in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Since I am not an expert on the subject, I have to say that Marable's book seemed very thorough and well-researched. It was also an engrossing narrative. I feel it well-deserves its Pulitzer Prize. My only complaint was towards the beginning of the novel, Marable inserted some innuendo about Malcolm X's sexuality - which was unnecessary, and rather rude since he didn't have any hard evidence to support his claims. That innuendo was referenced obliquely a few times in the first quarter of the book. Luckily, those references stopped for the last three quarters of the book, or I would have been left with a very bad taste in my mouth.The only reason I bring up that complaint is because I was looking for hints to why there's a controversy about this book. I was wondering if there was anything I, personally, could pick up. I'm not very familiar with what the controversy is about - and I haven't seen any controversial reference to the innuendo that bothered me. Mostly, the controversy seems to be about Marable's lack of respect for the impact Malcolm X had on the Black Liberation Movement. There's a book entitled A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable's Malcolm X, if you really want to delve into the issue. However, I am satisfied that Marable did a lot of really good research, and wrote an interesting and informative book. The issue of exactly what long-term impact Malcolm X had on the Civil Rights Movement and the country as a whole is an opinion, in my opinion.
Kira-Kira

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In this endearing book, the Takeshima family moves to Georgia so that Katie's parents can work in the chicken factory. There, young Katie learns about Southern racism and the practically-slave-labor conditions of factory workers. But when Katie's older sister Lynn becomes sick, Katie learns the hardest lesson of all...This is a sweet story - and pretty typical for Newbery winners. (Newbery judges certainly like bereavement, racism, and Southern settings!) The character in the book ranges from about 5-7, I'd say, but I think the subject and reading level is more appropriate for a 10-12 year old.
Wanted!

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When Ally gets a phone call from her dad asking her to grab a couple of discs and drive (without a license!) in his corvette to "the place where she gets ice cream," she knows something is wrong. But when someone breaks into the house while she's in it, Ally makes a run for it - only to find out that her dad has been murdered and she's the prime suspect. Will she be able to evade the police AND prove her innocence? This was a fun, fluffy, and clean teen thriller published back in the late '90s and recently re-released. I read it practically in one sitting. There are certain aspects of the book that didn't translate well to the 21st century. For example, this was written in a day when most people didn't have a cellphone - is that something today's teenager can even fathom? Ally made some stupid choices in this book (let's face it, it's hard to prove you're innocent when you're running away!), but in the end she managed to stay true to herself. This book would be appropriate for 11-14 year olds, and could be enjoyed by either boys or girls (i.e. it's high on suspense and low on romance). In fact, it made me miss the day in which the love triangle wasn't a required plot device for YA. Oh, those were the days!
The Fairest Beauty

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When Gabe Gerstenberg learns that his brother's fiance - who everyone thought had died - was very much alive and being held hostage by an evil duchess. Gabe's brother is down with a broken leg, and his father is busy, so he decides to rescue her himself. He bites off more than he can chew with this rash act, and ends up running desperately from the duchesses men - with a woman that he finds very attractive and very unavailable. This sweet Christian historical fiction retelling of Snow White, has all the recognizable elements of the fairy tale, but is set in a realistic world. There were a few really creative twists - like the "seven dwarves" that made this story a fun creation. There were a lot of ethical questions brought to light - the main theme was: when do you know you're following God's wishes rather than your own? This is a good book for readers of fluffy/sweet romance, fairy tale retellings, or Christian historical fiction. Personally, I found Sophie's character to be just a little too sweet and perfect, but I think that's the nature of the snow white fairy tale. As far as I'm concerned, that was the only flaw in this cute retelling.
Deadly Offer

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Althea craves popularity. She wants to be a cheerleader - swooned over by all the jocks and the envy of all the girls. When, against custom, she opens the shuttered tower room in her old house, she releases a vampire who makes a deal with her: If she brings him victims, he will give her popularity. Althea finds herself spiraling out of control as the vampire asks for more and more - and she feels she has to give it to him or suffer public humiliation. Looked at from a superficial point of view, there's really not much to this book. It's barely 200 pages long, and has little plot or character development. It's pretty standard for those Point Horror books that were being pumped out in the '90s. Teen readers should be wary - this is a quick, fluffy read with a (how dare Ms. Cooney?!) a BAD vampire. Yes. That's right. He looks and smells like soggy mushrooms. He feeds on the weakness of teenagers. And he doesn't sparkle. He was in no way, shape, or form romantic. It was SUCH a wonderful change. :) As long as bad vampires don't insult your intelligence, you'll enjoy this book if you're 11-14ish. Or you might enjoy it if you're older and enjoy exploring ideas.What I liked about this book was that it was more meaningful on a deeper level. There were hints all along that Althea could have made herself popular on her own - that her own attitude ensured her unpopularity. She assumed no one knew she existed, so she hid from everyone. Result - nobody paid her any attention. This is also a story about how far some people are willing to go in order to gain what they want. Allegorically, she sacrificed her morals and trampled on other people in order to achieve her goals - and then she was dissatisfied with the results. It's a story about being true to yourself and how your goals will be more lasting when you achieve them through hard work instead of back-stabbing. Any book that makes me think earns points with me! :) Another thing that made me think: where the heck were her parents through all of this?! They weren't mentioned even once! Did Cooney mean to do that? I read the second book in the trilogy many years ago, and I remember THAT character had parents...
Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths

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This engaging biography describes the life of Snorri Sturluson, a powerful 12th-century Icelandic chieftain and the author of the poetic Edda - one of the oldest surviving documents of Norse mythology. As a novice of Viking history, I found this book fascinating and informative - though I suspect that there is much speculation and Brown isn't always clear when she is speculating and when she has hard evidence for her claims. As such, I think this biography would be enjoyed by people who are interested in learning a bit about the Vikings, but not experts on the subject. Brown started each chapter out with a legend out of Snorri's Edda. Often, she told how this legend differs from other known versions and/or how it has affected modern culture. The rest of the book describes Snorri's life - his youth in the household of "the uncrowned King of Iceland," his marriage, his rise to political power, and his downfall. She seemed to get most of her hard evidence from a few primary documents and an outwardly biased biography written by Snorri's nephew, so often she had to fill in the gaps by saying "it's possible it happened more like this, since his nephew's story doesn't really jive with Snorri's personality." Of course, that makes me wonder if she had just as much positive bias towards Snorri as his nephew had negative bias. Overall, though, I'd say this biography was a success. When there is so little information available, and when the book is intended for a popular crowd rather than an academic one, such speculation is necessary - it makes the book more fun.
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